When it comes to cancer, medical researchers don't always have leads on why some people develop a malignancy and others remain cancer-free throughout their lives.
Yet, cancer experts are convinced they can puzzle out these differences and ultimately explain why a variety of cancers occur, based on a massive nationwide research project.
They are hoping 2,000 cancer-free Long Islanders will join.
The epidemiologic investigation is sponsored by the American Cancer Society and involves physicians at major medical centers across the country. The cancer society is attempting to recruit 300,000 people nationwide.
Known as CPS-3, for Cancer Prevention Study-3, the project is the third chapter in a series of sweeping, long-term investigations that began with CPS-1 in the late 1950s. CPS-1 was among the leading studies that proved cigarette smoking causes lung cancer. CPS-2 in the 1980s linked obesity to some forms of the disease.
With more than 200 forms of cancer, doctors this time around hope to find out the causes of malignancies for which there previously were no explanations.
"We are going to follow patients for an extended period of time to see what they do," said Dr. Myra Barginear, a medical oncologist at the North Shore-LIJ Cancer Institute, a division of the North Shore-Long Island Jewish Health System in Lake Success.
"We want to know if they smoke; if they are exposed to any particular chemicals in their workplace or where they live, and see if any of those exposures or behaviors could potentially cause cancer.
"In the majority of breast cancers we don't know the cause," Barginear continued. "About 8 to 10 percent occur for genetic reasons. But the rest are what we call sporadic."
Ashley Engelman of the American Cancer Society's division in Manhattan said participants for the research project are being sought from throughout Nassau and Suffolk counties. Candidates must be between the ages of 30 and 65 and agree to having cancer experts chart their course over a period of 20 or more years.
Engelman said CPS-3, like its predecessors, isn't starting out with an agenda. "These studies don't begin with researchers looking for something specific," she said. "They will be asking general lifestyle questions and looking for similarities or trends."
Cancer is a term that refers to dozens of malignant conditions. All cancers begin with a single cell. Once transformed by irreversible assaults to its DNA, this now misbehaving cell divides and proliferates, having lost all checks and balances that govern the activity of normal cells.
Barginear said with such a large group of participants, doctors hope to "put together the pieces of the puzzle," pinpointing those assaults that cause various forms of cancer to happen.