Here’s HOW to help unravel the mysteries of breast cancer

October 11, 2012 | by Roberta Nichols

Photo of Leslie Bernstein

We go online to search for a compatible mate or a cheap flight, take a class or sell a sofa. Now we can log in to help find the root causes of breast cancer.

The Health of Women (HOW) study was launched this month by Beckman Research Institute of City of Hope and the Dr. Susan Love Research Foundation.

The goal: Create a massive online database of women (and some men, too) to help researchers figure out why people get breast cancer – and how it might be prevented.

These answers may come from people who complete online questionnaires. And you can help.

Whether you’ve had breast cancer or not, if you’re a woman, you can do your part to the fight the disease by joining this first-of-its-kind international online study. Men with breast cancer or who are at high risk for developing it also are invited to join.

If you sign up online, you’ll be asked to fill out online surveys that will help to answer a variety of research questions – by providing information about your job, diet, family history, sleep patterns, the environment – information that may offer clues to researchers. You’ll also be able to submit questions that you would like to see studied and where possible these will be included in later questionnaires.

Leslie Bernstein, Ph.D., professor and director of cancer etiology, who’s leading the study at City of Hope, knows first-hand the value of “cohort” studies, in which large groups of people are studied over long periods of time.

In 1995, she began the California Teachers Study to look at factors affecting breast cancer risk and survival. The study, involving 22 researchers and a cohort of more than 134,000 public school professionals, has provided an unprecedented window into women's health, increasing understanding of the role lifestyle choices play in disease risk.

“Cohort studies are the most valuable form of study in epidemiology, but they are extremely costly and very difficult to manage,” says Bernstein.

“The new effort uses technology that is economical and permits us to capture behavior and lifestyle changes that impact women’s risk of cancer in real time.”

The HOW study began enlisting people when it was created in 2009, and many early recruits came from the Love/Avon Army of Women, begun in 2008 to find women interested in research studies exploring the causes and prevention of breast cancer.

Today, the Army has amassed more than 370,000 members and more than 78,600 of them have participated in the research process. It’s resulted in 66 research studies so far.

Bernstein sees online studies as the next wave of population-based research. Instead of spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on paper materials and mailing, scientists can use the power of the Web to efficiently and quickly get data.

“Through HOW, we just create an online questionnaire, participants respond, and we will have preliminary data available within weeks,” she says. “These are data that could have lasting impact in understanding breast cancer.”

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