Spotlight on Nutrition and Physical Activity Grantees

Following are some of the nutrition and physical activity investigators currently funded through research grants by the American Cancer Society. They're working to find the answers that will save more lives and better prevent, treat, and manage cancer.

Could Community Gardens Help Neighborhoods Prevent Cancer?

Grantee: Jill Litt, PhD
Institution: University of Colorado, Boulder
Research Area: Cancer Control and Prevention: Psychosocial and Behavioral Research
Grant Term: 1/1/2017 to 12/31/2020

The Challenge: How do we encourage people to make lifestyle choices that can help prevent cancer? That question is even harder to answer for people of color who live in poor neighborhoods. They often don't have easy access to fresh food, spaces to exercise and play, or good social support.

The Research: Earlier studies that Jill Litt, PhD, has done suggest that community gardens help people eat more vegetables and fruits, get more exercise, avoid gaining weight as they get older, and be more involved with others . With this ACS-funded research project, she and her team are digging deeper.

In a group of 312 multi-ethnic non-gardeners, half (selected randomly) will receive materials and support to start their own plot in a community garden. The rest will stay on a community-garden waitlist. After a year, they’ll receive the same garden start-up package as the other group.

This carefully designed 3-year study will take a closer look at what happens to the gardeners' diets, activity levels, weight, and waist sizes — as well as social relationships. The researchers also want to learn what influenced those changes to take place.

The Goal and Long-term Possibilities: The study could show that community gardens are a practical, affordable way to adopt healthy behaviors to help lower the risk of cancer in multi-ethnic, low-income communities. 

Testing Church-Based Support to Fight Obesity in African American Communities

Grantee: Lorna McNeil, PhD, MPH
Institution: University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston
Research Area: Cancer Control and Prevention: Psychosocial and Behavioral Research
Grant Term: 1/1/2018 to 12/31/2022

The Challenge: Being obese increases the risk for several types of cancer, as well as heart disease, diabetes, and arthritis. That's a particular concern for African Americans, who tend to be diagnosed with and die from cancer more often than other racial and ethnic groups.

The Research: Since churches can be strong influences in African American communities, Lorna McNeil, PhD, MPH, thinks faith-based support may be key to helping reduce this health disparity. She and her team are leading a study with 21 churches to test 3 approaches to weight loss.

They randomly divided more than 1,300 people into 1 of 3 groups: overweight parents, families (one overweight parent and one child, ages 10 to 16), or the overall church.

The researchers are using methods proven to help people change their behavior. For instance, the groups for parents and families:

  • Meet with a professional health coach every month
  • Have sessions with a church member trained as community health worker (CHW). They offer support, including guiding study participants to local resources, like parks or dieticians.
  • Are part of monthly support groups that include activities like healthy grocery shopping

People in the church-wide group receive the same information as the others, but not the structured personal support.

All groups will be weighed every 6 weeks during the study.

The Goal and Long-term Possibilities: If the program works to help people get to, or stay at, a healthy weight, it could provide a model for bigger interventions with more churches.  

Can Walking Help Prevent Nerve Damage in the Hands and Feet Caused by Chemotherapy?

Grantee: Grace Kanzawa-Lee, BSN
Institution: Regents of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor
Area of Research: Behavioral
Grant Term: 7/1/2019 to 6/30/2021

The Challenge: People with colorectal cancer that has grown outside the colon or rectum often get a chemotherapy drug called oxaliplatin. Unfortunately, this drug often damages nerves in the hands and feet, causing numbness, tingling, or pain. The condition is called oxaliplatin-induced peripheral neuropathy (OIPN). It can lead to problems with balance and movement, which can lower a patient’s quality of life.

Doctors may reduce the dose of oxaliplatin to help patients feel better, but that may also lessen the benefits of the treatment.

Studies suggest that the increased blood flow to the hands and feet from exercise may help prevent or reduce the effects of nerve damage in people receiving oxaliplatin. However, we don't know what type, intensity, or amount of exercise is best.

The Research: Grace Kanzawa-Lee, BSN, is testing 2 groups of people with stage II or III colorectal cancer who receive oxaliplatin chemotherapy. Both groups will get information about recommended aerobic exercise. One group will also get a customized, progressive walking program and techniques to help them stay motivated.

For 8 weeks, Kanzawa-Lee and her team will track both groups, collecting data on:

  • OIPN symptoms
  • Quality of life
  • Oxaliplatin dosage
  • How well the walking group is able to follow the program

The Goal and Long-term Possibilities: The team hopes that the walking program will improve patients’ quality of life by allowing them to get higher doses of oxaliplatin while avoiding severe OIPN symptoms. The findings of this study could pave the way for research to help define exercise guidelines for treating patients with colorectal cancer.

From Our Researchers

The American Cancer Society employs a staff of full-time researchers who relentlessly pursue the answers that help us understand the relationship between healthy eating and active living and cancer. 

Being Active When You'd Usually Sit May Help You Live Longer

Researcher: Erika Rees-Punia, PhD, MPH
Institution: American Cancer Society, Intramural Research Department
Area of Research: Epidemiology

The Challenge: Most people know that regular physical activity can help lower your risk of cancer and some other
diseases — and help you live longer. Recent news reports repeatedly inform us that too much sitting is linked with a higher risk of cancer, other health problems — and early death. Still, many people don’t get enough activity and sit too much.

The Research: A recent ACS study found that replacing sitting with activity might help people live longer.  Erika Rees-Punia, PhD, an ACS epidemiology post-doctoral fellow, was the lead writer.

She and her team used data from people who were part of in the ACS Cancer Prevention Study-II (CPS-II) Nutrition Study. The researchers divided the participants into groups based on activity levels, and then used statistics to project how the participants’ life expectancy would have changed if they had exercised for 30 minutes instead of sitting for 30 minutes.

They found that the least-active group would have increased their life expectancy, even if they’d only done light activity for 30 minutes. The most active group would not have changed their life expectancy, even if they exercised vigorously for 30 minutes instead of sitting.

The Goal and Potential Long-term Possibilities: Light physical activity may make it easier for those who don’t exercise much to improve their health. It can also encourage people who aren’t very active to increase their activity.


Studying the Influence of Better Diet After Diagnosis for Colorectal Cancer

Investigator: Mark A. Guinter, PhD, MPH
Institution: American Cancer Society, Intramural Research Department
Area of Research: Epidemiology

The Challenge: Research shows a strong link between a person’s diet and their risk for developing colorectal cancer. But there hasn’t been consistent research about the effect of diet after a diagnosis of colorectal cancer.

The Research: A recent ACS study was one of the first to focus on colorectal cancer survivors’ risk of dying based on how well they ate before and after their diagnosis. Mark Guinter, PhD, MPH, an American Cancer Society (ACS) post-doctoral fellow, was the lead author.

He and his team used data from 2,801 men and women with colorectal cancer from the ACS Cancer Prevention Study-II (CPS-II) Nutrition Study. Those who reported a diet that followed the ACS Guidelines for Nutrition for Cancer Prevention had a lower risk of death from their cancer — even if their diet was unhealthy before diagnosis. The ACS nutrition guidelines recommend eating lots of plant foods and high-fiber foods and limiting added sugar, red meat, and processed meat.

The Goal and Long-term Possibilities: The findings suggest that colorectal cancer survivors may be able to live longer by eating a healthy diet. Doctors and other health care providers may use this evidence to let colorectal cancer survivors know that it’s not too late to improve how they eat. 

Can the Increased Motivation Cancer Survivors Have During the 1st Year After Treatment Lead Them to Exercise?

Investigator: Corinne Leach, PhD, MPH, MS
Institution: American Cancer Society, Intramural Research Department
Area of Research: Behavioral Research and Epidemiology

The Challenge: Research shows that cancer survivors can benefit from exercise. It can improve their health, reduce the chances that some types of cancer will recur, and can lead to a better quality of life. Yet, most people don’t exercise enough to meet the American Cancer Society (ACS) Nutrition and Physical Activity Guidelines for Survivors. These guidelines recommend that each week cancer survivors should aim to:

  • Exercise for at least 150 minutes at a moderate intensity, such as by walking briskly or biking on level ground, or
  • Exercise vigorously at least 75 minutes, such as by race walking or biking faster than 10 miles/hour.

The Research: ACS behavioral researcher Corinne Leach, PhD, MPH, MS, believed that the results might look different during the first year after a survivor’s treatment. During that period of time, known as re-entry, survivors may be more motivated to improve their health habits.

Leach was one of the senior authors of a recent study focusing on physical activity during re-entry.

She and her ACS coworkers used data from 1,160 people from the ACS’s National Cancer Survivor Transition Study. The team thinks they’re the first to study re-entry for such a large number of survivors of breast, colorectal, and prostate cancer.

Leach’s team found that during that first year after treatment about 58% of survivors met physical activity guidelines. But 8% were completely inactive. Those most likely to be inactive were women, unmarried people, and those with with lower education levels, higher BMIs, and more health conditions.

The Goal and Long-term Possibilities: The team hopes their findings will inspire more doctors and public health officials to use the re-entry period to educate cancer survivors about the benefits of being physically active. Programs that target and inspire survivors who are the most likely to be inactive may lead to the biggest gains in health.