In 1959, Elmo Ligon of Eastern North Carolina was diagnosed with leukemia and agreed to enroll in a research study at Duke Hospital that was testing the effectiveness of a new drug called Cytoxan.
The drug worked, and Ligon lived for 16 more years, until 1975, when he died at age 57.
Thirty years later, in April 2005, Ligon’s granddaughter, Cheryl Burgess, was diagnosed with breast cancer. And she learned a surprising thing:
“The drug he took in the clinical study ended up being one of the drugs that I took for my breast cancer treatment,” said Burgess, now 46, of Lincolnton. “You just never know how what you do is going to benefit somebody else.”
That’s what medical research is all about.
Patients who may not even be helped themselves volunteer for studies that might help others in the future.
Cheryl, grateful for her grandfather’s decision, is now a volunteer “community champion” for a long-term research project sponsored by the American Cancer Society.
It’s a national study that aims to enroll 300,000 people nationwide to help understand factors, such as lifestyle, environment and genetics, that could cause or prevent cancer.
Enrollment began in 2006 through the cancer society’s Relay For Life events across the country. Last year, recruiting expanded to other sites, such as hospitals and churches.
Recruiters are coming to the Charlotte area in March, hoping to enroll 1,200 people at nine locations over four days.
Participants must be between the ages of 30 and 65 and never have had cancer. They will be asked to complete a survey and give a blood sample. Then for 20 to 30 years, they’ll be asked to fill out a survey every two or three years. The blood will be stored so that, if participants develop cancer later, it can be analyzed for markers that might give clues about cause or prevention.
“We have made great strides in treating cancer, but we still don’t know how to prevent it,” said Denise Goodwin-Hockaday, a director with the cancer society’s South Atlantic Division, based in Charlotte.
“Imagine what could come out of this study?…Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we talked about cancer the way we talk about polio? Children would say: ‘Ma, what’s that?’ ”
So far, the study has enrolled 185,000 people, and enrollment will close at the end of 2013.
Research will focus on environmental factors.
“Society has become more obese,” Goodwin-Hockaday said. “….We live close to power lines. Everyone has cellphones to our ears. And we’re all sitting at work…We’re eating processed food.”
Before enrollment begins in the Charlotte area, the cancer society plans to sign up 240 volunteer “champions,” who like Burgess, will personally recruit others to participate.
Champions could be cancer survivors who want to give back to the community, said Kari Dahlstrom, a cancer society spokesperson.
“It’s a great way for them to do something meaningful that doesn’t take a lot of time.”