Preventing cancer through physical activity
When Dr Christine Friedenreich reflects on her work as a cancer epidemiologist – a scientist who studies patterns of disease in populations – her most deeply held belief is that, somehow, she is helping to eradicate cancer.
Dr Friedenreich has spent much of her career identifying modifiable risk factors for cancer. Since 1994, she’s been studying the link between cancer risk and physical activity, becoming an international leader on this topic. She is well respected for her ability to tackle this important question and has developed new methods to enable this research by combining observational and experimental methods.
“When I started looking at the relationship between cancer and physical activity, I realized nobody had measured lifetime activity,” she explains. “Also, no one had taken into account the sum of a person’s activities – on the job, for recreation and around the house.”
To meet this challenge, Dr Friedenreich developed a questionnaire to accurately measure lifetime activity. Initially used to collect data for a study of physical activity and breast cancer risk, it has also been used to pinpoint the effects of activity on prostate and endometrial cancer. Using data gathered with this questionnaire, she was able to show conclusively that active postmenopausal women have a 30% to 40% lower risk of breast cancer.
“Finding such a strong risk reduction with lifetime physical activity was really exciting,” she says. “Physical activity is a modifiable lifestyle risk factor, so people have control over it. That’s big news. It means people can do something to reduce their risk of developing cancer.”
Exemplified in the Canadian Cancer Society–funded ALPHA (Alberta physical activity and breast cancer prevention) trial, Dr Friedenreich has shown that physical activity can provide benefits in reducing biomarkers for breast cancer risk. The findings from the ALPHA trial led her to conduct the BETA (Breast cancer and exercise trial in Alberta) trial to examine how different amounts of physical activity influence a number of breast cancer risk biomarkers. With the support of the Society, Dr Friedenreich is now performing ancillary studies to evaluate the impact of physical activity on new biomarkers in the ALPHA trial and to assess the long-term effects of exercise in the BETA trial.
Dr Friedenreich’s work is also defining what types and levels of physical activity reduce cancer risk the most. “This is an extremely rewarding area of research,” she says. “There are real public health implications. Being able to have an impact on a population’s health is exciting. I’m a small fish in a big, big pond, but it’s gratifying to make a contribution.”
In addition to her ongoing research on physical activity and cancer risk, Dr Friedenreich is partnering with the Society to estimate how many new cases of cancer in Canada could be prevented by changing lifestyle and environmental factors and will project how many cancers could be avoided over the next 30 years. This study is the first of its kind in Canada and is anticipated to have a major impact on cancer control policy.
Dr Friedenreich is currently the division head for the Division of Preventive Oncology in the University of Calgary’s Department of Oncology and the scientific leader of Cancer Epidemiology and Prevention Research at Alberta Health Services – CancerControl Alberta. In 2013, she was the co-recipient of the Society’s O. Harold Warwick Prize for her outstanding contributions to cancer control in Canada.
Throughout her career, Dr Friedenreich has demonstrated her intellectual agility by taking diverse methodological approaches to the study of cancer causes, resulting in high impact findings. The quality of her research output, combined with her long history of scientific collaboration and dedication to the International Agency for Research on Cancer, has helped raise the international profile of Canadian epidemiology. In addition to her established reputation as a researcher of excellence, Dr Friedenreich is regarded by her colleagues as an individual of high ethical standards and integrity, a skilled communicator, a sought-after collaborator and a generous volunteer in research and community service.
Over the years, Dr Friedenreich has maintained a strong relationship with the Society and she highlights the importance of Society funding to her research program. “I have been involved with the Canadian Cancer Society for years as both a grant applicant, reviewer and chair of grant and career award panels and have been immensely impressed by the quality of the review process that is conducted by the Society. I am both grateful and honoured to have been funded by the Society for my own research, which has been a key determinant of my early and ongoing success.”