Understanding the roots of cancer: Dr. Louise Parker explores why Atlantic Canada has nation’s highest cancer rates
The causes of cancer are lifelong and complex. “There’s no one simple answer as to why anyone gets cancer,” says Dr. Louise Parker, an IWK-Dalhousie epidemiologist and Canadian Cancer Society (Nova Scotia Division) Chair in Population Cancer Research. “It depends on so many factors, from genetics and lifestyle choices to what people are exposed to in their environments over the years.”
Dr. Parker is heading a $7-million Atlantic-Canada-wide study to expose the roots of the high cancer rates in this region. The Atlantic Partnership for Tomorrow’s Health (PATH) is recruiting 30,000 volunteers from all four Atlantic provinces to participate in a long-term cohort study. Part of a massive national study involving 300,000 people, with $42 million in funding from the Canadian Partnership Against Cancer. The Atlantic PATH will examine people’s lifestyle habits, environmental exposures, DNA and other biological samples over 30 years, as well as their health outcomes. The resulting data will point the way to prevention and early detection
“The Atlantic provinces have the highest rates of cancer in Canada,” says Dr. Parker. “The Atlantic PATH project will help us understand why the rates are so high in the region and, more importantly, to develop strategies which deal with those underlying causes and significantly reduce those rates.”
The geography of cancer is of particular interest to Dr. Parker, who came to Halifax in 2006 from England’s Newcastle University. “In Nova Scotia, there are areas where radon is found in high levels in the ground,” she notes. “There are also areas where arsenic leaches into the groundwater. I’m studying how these exposures affect people’s cancer risk over time.” More than studying, she is also a key member of Nova Scotia’s Advisory Group on Radon. The effects of obesity, alcohol, fast foods and household chemicals are also on Dr. Parker’s radar. “It’s not in our best interests to sit back and see what happens over time,” she says. “As we learn how various factors influence cancer risk, we must influence policy to protect people.”
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