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Congrats to the teams receiving our Hero of Research Award

An exception was made this year for a non-Relay team

Our Heroes of Research Award offers qualified Relay For Life teams an opportunity to name an existing post-doctoral fellowship research grant in honor of a loved one or their team. Once identified, this named grant would be active for three years and the team would have the option to talk with the actual researcher.

This award has been given to 15 Relay For Life teams nationwide since its inception in 2017, including one special exception this year. To win this award, teams must raise $165,000 in a calendar year. 

In 2019, we had three teams qualify for the Heroes of Research Award — Nucor Steel Louisiana (from Relay For Life of St. James Parish, LA), The Naturals (from the Relay For Life of York, PA), and Ravens in the Hood (from Fighting Cancer to the Coast in Seaside, OR). Among the three teams, they raised more than $285,000 over what they did in 2018.

Let’s learn more about these three impressive Hero of Research teams! 

Nucor Steel Louisiana Relay For Life Team

Nucor Steel Louisiana is a part of the Nucor Corporation based in Charlotte, North Carolina. The team has participated in the St. James Parish Relay event since 2013. It became a Hero of Research in 2018 by raising $217,00. Nucor Steel Louisiana team was awarded a second Hero of Research Award in 2019 by raising $200,000 more than it did in 2018.

Nucor Steel Louisiana is the only team to receive two Hero of Research Awards, allowing it to name two research grants. The team named its first grant “The Nucor Bailee-Bee DIPG Grant,” and named its second grant “Bailee’s Brigade mTOR Grant” in honor of a teammate’s 12-year-old daughter. 

The Naturals Relay For Life Team (pictured above)

The Naturals is a team made up of staff from the United Natural Foods. The Naturals begin fundraising for Relay For Life 10 years ago, and had been consistently raising around $100,000 yearly. In 2018, the team raised a little more than $84,000. Members of the team wondered if they should continue as a team, however in 2019 the team had the best year yet by raising more than $166,000. The Hero of Research Award is a great way to recognize this team for its 2019 fundraising effort. The Naturals now have a renewed excitement.

This team named its first grant “Gabby Galino and The Naturals of UNFI Hope Research Grant” to honor Gabby Galino, a 13-year-old student at Northern Middle School in York County who is battling cancer. Gabby was diagnosed with stage 4 Hodgkin’s Lymphoma in October. UNFI (the company that supports The Naturals) has rallied around her, helping the family fundraise to pay their medical bills, and supporting the team.

Ravens in the Hood (pictured in the smaller image)

Ravens in the Hood is an incredible high school team from Ravenscroft School in North Carolina. This team participates in the Fighting Cancer to the Coast DetermiNation event where athletes run in the Hood To Coast Relay in teams of 8-12 people for 199 mil, from Mount Hood to Seaside, OR. The team has raised approximately $450,000 solely through Fighting Cancer to the Coast, and it also supports Crucial Catch in their hometown of Raleigh, NC, raising more than $80,000 in three years. Because of their dedication to the American Cancer Society mission, an exception for Ravens in the Hood was made so it could become a Hero of Research Award winner, an honor usually reserved for Relay teams. Watch this video to learn more about their experience

This team named its first grant “Ravenscroft School Cancer Research Fund” to honor the students, faculty, and alumni that are part of the team and who do so much every year to make their team successful. 

Congratulations to all three teams! If you have any questions, please contact Steve Konsdorf, director, Relay For Life platform initiatives.

  • Cancer research insights from the latest decade, 2010 to 2020

    ​In the last 10 years, the overall cancer death rate has continued to decline. Researchers in the U.S. and across the world have made major advances in learning more complex details about how to prevent, diagnose, treat, and survive cancer. 

    At the forefront of emerging cancer research is the success of immunotherapy, the growing role of precision medicine, the influence that reducing health disparities can have on cancer outcomes, and the development and use of liquid biopsies and machine learning, which is allowing scientists to make sense of "big data." 

    Here's a look at some of the significant advances from the past 10 years that are helping to save lives now – and how ACS research has contributed to each one.

    Treating Cancer Became More Precise

    Precision medicine is helping move cancer treatment from one-size-fits-all to an approach where doctors can choose treatments that are most likely to successfully treat a person's cancer based on the detailed genetic information of that person's specific cancer. With advances leading to faster and less expensive gene sequencing, precision medicine is starting to be used more often to treat patients, most notably in the treatment of lung cancer. Over the last 10 years, many researchers with ACS grants have contributed to that growth. For instance, ACS-funded researchers across the U.S. have developed ways to quickly analyze the large amounts of data that result from gene sequencing, identify mutations in lung cancer genes, and helped find new treatments for lung cancer patients when the precision drug they were using stopped working. ACS also helped fund research on precision medicines for triple negative breast cancer, pancreatic cancer, certain brain cancers, and other types of cancer. 

    Cancers Can Spread With Help From Their Neighbors

    Once cancer spreads (metastasizes) from one place in the body to another, the chances of survival decrease. Until recently, scientists haven't known how much help cancer cells get from other types of cells and substances in their microenvironment. The microenvironment is the immediate area around the tumor. Over the last 10 years, ACS grantees defined features of cancer cells that must be present for metastasis to happen. They also learned more about how cancer cells:

    Identifying each "helper" in the microenvironment could lead to new targets for novel treatments that can help shut down the cancer's growth and ability to spread.

    Two New Types of Immunotherapy Were Developed

    CAR T-cell therapy (also called gene therapy) involves making changes to a patient's T cells (a type of immune cell) in the lab so they can better fight cancer. The ACS helped fund some of the pioneering research involved in the development and improvement of Kymriah (tisagenlecleucel), the first gene therapy approved by the FDA. This drug can be used to treat leukemia and lymphoma in children and adults.

    Immune checkpoint inhibitors are another type of immunotherapy. They stop cancer cells from "hiding" from the immune system. But over time, patients develop resistance to these drugs, and ACS grantees are finding solutions. They've found that:

    More People Started Getting the Message that Obesity Is Linked with Cancer

    Obesity is now the second-leading cause of preventable cancer deaths in the U.S. There's clear evidence that excess weight increases the risk for developing cancer, but research continues in order to better understand the full effect obesity has on cancer. In 2016, the ACS Cancer Prevention Study-II (CPS-II) linked excess weight with 13 types of cancers. Here are some other key findings from ACS research related to obesity:

    Smoking Is Still the Most Preventable Cause of Cancer Deaths

    Though fewer people use tobacco worldwide, smoking remains the leading cause of preventable deaths from cancer. In the past decade, ACS researchers have continued pioneering studies on the complexities of tobacco economics, showing that higher taxes on cigarettes reduce smoking and that increasing such taxes in states where they are still low could save lives. ACS researchers also found that illicit trade and harm to tobacco farmers are mostly myths sustained by the tobacco industry to stop public health efforts. The Surgeon General used ACS data to help show the far-reaching damage from smoking includes associations with breast and prostate cancer, as well as kidney failure, hypertension, infections, and respiratory diseases. In 2013, ACS research showed that women's risk of dying from smoking had caught up to men's.

    Researchers Discover More About the Microbiome's Influence on Cancer

    The microbiome is a complex community of microorganisms like bacteria, fungi, and viruses that live on and in our bodies. When there's a healthy mix of these microorganisms, they do a variety of tasks like help our immune system function, and help our bodies digest food and absorb nutrients. But when the mix becomes out of balance, it may lead to disease, including cancer. Recently, researchers discovered that an unbalanced microbiome may influence metastasis, the spread of cancer to distant parts of the body. For example, in 2017, ACS research found that Fusobacterium travels with colon cancer cells as they metastasize. This close pairing of bacteria and cancer cells gives researchers an exciting opportunity to test whether antibiotics may help patients with Fusobacterium-associated colorectal cancer. ACS research has also contributed greatly to understanding the microbiome's role in immunotherapies, especially for melanoma.

    DNA Mutations Aren't the Only Causes of Cancer

    Epigenetics refers to changes in how genes behave that don't involve changes to the gene itself. Put more simply, you can think of cells as actors, and DNA as the script, which includes the stage directions about key actions. Epigenetics would be like directing. The script (DNA) may be the same, but the director is able to change the movie for better or worse. Both gene changes and epigenetic changes can be involved with cancer. In the last 10 years, ACS-funded researchers have been on the forefront of epigenetics research. Some of their findings include:

    Health Equity Matters

    Health equity is the idea that everyone has a fair and just opportunity to prevent, find, treat, and survive cancer. Tracking health disparities, a difference in health that's closely linked with an economic, social, or environmental disadvantages, is a way to measure progress toward achieving health equity. In the last 10 years, ACS-funded research has studied a range of causes for healthcare disparities and a diverse set of health equity issues. Some of their key findings include:

    New Understanding About Cancer Cells' Metabolism Opens the Door for New Drug Targets

    Like normal cells, cancer cells grow by using metabolic processes to convert "food" (carbohydrates, fats, and proteins) into energy. But cancer cells have abnormal metabolisms that help them multiply and spread quickly. Over the last 10 years, ACS-funded researchers have been actively involved in work that could lead to the development of drugs that could kill cancer cells by interfering with their metabolism. Here are some of the potential new drug targets they've discovered.

    • A protein in a cancer cell that's abnormal. This protein is made by a mutated gene. Normally, it keeps tumors from growing. But when the protein comes from a mutated gene, it does the opposite and helps a tumor grow. A drug that targets this protein could slow a cancer's growth.
    • A type of amino acid. Amino acids are one type of fuel used by cancer cells to grow, and it may be particularly important for pancreatic cancer. A drug that targets this amino acid could cut off a "food" supply to the cancer.
    • The mutated genes in a cancer cell that make an abnormal enzyme. This enzyme is part of the machinery cells use to turn food into energy. Drugs that target this gene in cancer metabolism may help treat some difficult-to-treat cancers, including certain brain or spinal tumors (gliomas) and cancer in the bile duct (cholangiocarcinoma).
    • The gene that's activated in areas where there's too little oxygen. This often happens when cancer cells are growing very rapidly. A drug that targets this gene could prevent cancer from surviving in such areas.

    Researchers Highlighted the Benefits of Receiving Palliative Care Early in Cancer Treatment

    With cancer, there are two modes of care—treatment directed at the disease and treatment, known as palliative care, which is focused on the person with the disease. This type of care helps patients and caregivers manage symptoms from the cancer and side effects from the treatment. Clinical trials have shown that when people with cancer receive both types of treatment at the same time, their symptoms are controlled better, and they have less anxiety and depression, improved family satisfaction and quality of life, improved use of healthcare resources, and longer survival. Palliative care is one of the fastest growing areas of health care in the US, and it's changing as new treatments emerge, especially for cancer patients.

    Over the last decade, ACS-funded researchers led the field in publishing studies on the benefits of early palliative care, finding that patients with metastatic non-small-cell lung cancer who received palliative care early in their treatment had big improvements in their quality of life and mood. A 2017 paper by an ACS-grantee explained why the US needs more palliative care programs, outlining ideas for implementing a national strategy. Furthermore, ACS grantees helped develop an online and face-to-face curriculum to increase education about pediatric palliative care for healthcare providers and to promote resilience as part of stress management for parents of children living with a serious illness.

    The Future

    ACS has taken steps to prepare for the next decade of cancer research including developing a blueprint to improve cancer control in the US, increasing the ability for some of the best cancer experts to work together, collecting blood and tissue samples from volunteers in the ACS Cancer Prevention Studies-3 (CPS-3) that will allow for more research, and starting new partnerships that can help promote more cancer research, such as with St. Baldrick's Foundation for children's cancers and the Melanoma Research Alliance. Just as researchers build on past discoveries while keeping their eyes on the future, our eyes are on our competitor—cancer—and on the prize—a world without cancer. 

    NOTE: This story by Sandy McDowell, Sarah Ludwig Rausch, and Kenna Simmons first appeared on

  • Report links recommended physical activity levels to lower risk of seven cancers

    Aim for 2.5 to 5 hours per week of moderate-intensity activity, or 1.25 to 2.5 hours of vigorous activity

    A pooled analysis of nine prospective studies involving more than 750,000 adults finds that recommended amounts of leisure-time physical activity were linked to a lower risk for seven cancers, with several cancer types having a ‘dose/response’ relationship. The study was led by investigators at the National Cancer Institute, the American Cancer Society, and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, and appears in the Journal of Clinical Oncology.

    While it’s long been known that physical activity is associated with a lower risk of several cancers, less clear has been the shape of the relationship and whether recommended amounts of physical activity are associated with lower risk. Updated guidelines for activity now state that people should aim for 2.5 to 5 hours per week of moderate-intensity activity, or 1.25 to 2.5 hours/week of vigorous activity. Moderate-intensity activities are those that get you moving fast enough or strenuously enough to burn off three to six times as much energy per minute as sitting quietly (3 to 6 METs). Vigorous-intensity activities burn more than 6 METs. (MET is the ratio of the rate of energy expended during an activity to the rate of energy expended at rest.)

    For the current analysis, investigators pooled data from nine prospective cohorts with self-reported leisure-time physical activity and follow-up for cancer incidence, looking at the relationship between physical activity with incidence of 15 types of cancer.

    They found engaging in recommended amounts of activity (7.5 to 15 MET hours per week) was associated with a statistically significant lower risk of seven of the 15 cancer types studied, with the reduction increasing with more MET hours. Physical activity was associated with a lower risk of colon cancer in men (8% for 7.5 MET hours/week; 14% for 15 MET hours/week), female breast cancer (6%-10%), endometrial cancer (10%-18%), kidney cancer (11%-17%), myeloma (14%-19%), liver cancer (18%-27%), and non-Hodgkin lymphoma (11%-18% in women).

    The analysis had some limitations: Even with 750,000 participants, patient numbers were limited for some cancers; participants were primarily white; there was a limited number of cohorts with detailed physical activity measures; and the authors relied on self-reported physical activity.

    The authors conclude: “These findings provide direct quantitative support for the levels of activity recommended for cancer prevention and provide actionable evidence for ongoing and future cancer prevention efforts.”

    “Physical activity guidelines have largely been based on their impact on chronic diseases like cardiovascular disease and diabetes,” said Alpa Patel, PhD, senior scientific director of epidemiology research at ACS. “These data provide strong support that these recommended levels are important to cancer prevention, as well.” 

  • Affordable Care Act improved care of colorectal cancer in young adults

    ​The Affordable Care Act (ACA) has led to better treatment for young adults diagnosed with colorectal cancer, according to a study from the American Cancer Society. 

    A provision in the ACA allows young adults up to age 26 to be covered under their parents' private health care insurance. The study, published December 19, 2019 in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, says the provision helped these young adults get diagnosed earlier and start some treatments sooner.

    The researchers, led by Leticia Nogueira, PhD, MPH, pictured here, used the National Cancer Database to look at data from more than 10,000 young adults diagnosed with colorectal cancer between 2007 and 2013. They compared outcomes for those diagnosed before the ACA took effect in 2010 with those diagnosed after it took effect. They looked at 2 age groups: 19 to 25-year-old patients, who were eligible to be on their parents' insurance, and 27 to 34-year-old patients, who had "aged out" of their parents' health insurance.

    They found eligible patients got better care after the ACA was enacted:

    • The percent diagnosed with early stage cancer increased from 12.8% before the ACA to 27.8% after the ACA went into effect. Early stage cancers are generally easier to treat than later stage cancers.
    • Those who had surgery for stage IIB to IIIC colorectal cancer were 34% more likely after ACA to receive adjuvant, or additional chemotherapy, which is widely considered to be the standard of care.
    • Among those who received adjuvant chemotherapy, the average time from surgery to chemotherapy was 7 days shorter: from 57.4 days before ACA to 50.4 days after ACA.

    At the same time, there was no significant change in care after the ACA took effect for the patients not eligible to be on their parents' insurance.

    The people in the study were too young for routine colorectal cancer screening. The authors write the improvements in care are most likely due to better access to health care that helped them get symptoms checked out earlier.

  • 2019 in Review: New cancer drug approvals

    Chemotherapy is one of the most powerful tools we have to treat cancer, and research continues to find new chemotherapy drugs as well as new uses for existing ones. At the same time, newer types of drugs are being developed that work in different ways to attack cancer cells. These types of treatments include targeted therapy, which aims to more precisely identify and go after cancer cells while doing less damage to normal cells, and immunotherapy, which uses the body's own immune system to help find and destroy cancer.

    Before any new drug can be sold in the United States, it goes through an approval process. The FDA evaluates evidence from testing to decide whether the drug's benefits outweigh any known risks. The FDA also provides doctors and patients with information about how to use the new drug safely.

    In 2019, the FDA approved several new drug treatments for different cancer types that American Cancer Society editors believe will make a significant difference.

    Bladder Cancer

    Balversa (erdafitinib) is the first targeted therapy approved for bladder cancer. The FDA approved this drug in April for adults with advanced bladder cancer with a mutation in the FGFR3 or FGFR2 gene, and that has gotten worse after treatment with chemotherapy. The FDA also approved a test to look for these gene mutations.

    Breast Cancer

    In March, the FDA approved the first immunotherapy treatment for breast cancer. It's a combination of Tecentriq (atezolizumab) and Abraxane (nab-paclitaxel) for people with advanced triple negative breast cancer. There are few other treatments available for this aggressive cancer type.

    In May, the FDA approved the targeted therapy Piqray (alpelisib) for a type of breast cancer caused by a certain inherited genetic mutation. It's the first treatment of its kind for this cancer type.

    Head and Neck Cancer

    The immunotherapy drug Keytruda (pembrolizumab) was approved in June as a first-line, or initial, treatment for people with advanced head and neck cancer. Keytruda is also used to treat people with several other cancer types.

    Lung Cancer

    The FDA approved Tecentriq (atezolizumab) in March as the second immunotherapy drug for people with advanced small cell lung cancer, and the first for use as part of first-line treatment. Tecentriq is also used to treat people with several other cancer types.


    In June, the FDA approved the first antibody-drug conjugate to treat diffuse large B-cell lymphoma, the most common type of non-Hodgkin lymphoma in the US. An antibody-drug conjugate is a targeted drug combined with chemotherapy. The targeted drug finds the cancer cell and then delivers the chemo to destroy it. The new drug, Polivy (polatuzumab vedotin-piiq), is approved to be used along with the chemotherapy drug bendamustine and a rituximab product.

    Multiple Cancer Types

    For just the third time, the FDA approved a drug to treat tumors with a specific genetic change regardless of cancer type. Rozlytrek (entrectinib) was approved in August for adults and adolescents with tumors that test positive for NTRK gene changes, which can help cancerous tumors grow.

    NOTE: This story by Stacy Simon first appeared on

  • ACS study on danger of drinking scalding hot tea was one of most read studies of 2019

    ​#73 on Altmetric Top 100 for 2019

    An ACS study led by Farhad Islami Gomeshtapeh, MD, PhD, scientific director, Surveillance Research, has been named to the Altmetric Top 100 list of academic papers that received the most online attention in 2019.

    As Altmetric notes, the only theme that many of these Top 100 papers have in common is their ability to start conversations, and the ranking has no bearing on the quality or impact of the research itself. Altmetric, whose mission is to track and analyze the online activity around scholarly literature, collates what people are saying about published research in sources such as the mainstream media, policy documents, social networks, blogs, and other scholarly and non-scholarly forums. 

    The ACS paper, "A prospective study of tea drinking temperature and risk of esophageal squamous cell carcinoma”, was published in the International Journal of Cancer in March 2019.

    According to the paper, people who drank a lot of tea above 60 degrees Celsius (140 degrees Fahrenheit) had nearly double the risk for esophageal squamous cell carcinoma compared to those who drank cooler tea and less tea in general.

    Esophageal squamous cell carcinoma is the sixth most common cause of cancer death worldwide. In the U.S., the lifetime risk of developing the disease is about 1 in 132 in men and about 1 in 455 in women. 

    The World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer has classified drinking “very hot” beverages, above 65 C, as “probably carcinogenic” to humans. 

    Starting in 2004, researchers collected data on 50,000 adults living in the Golestan Province in northeastern Iran, where high rates of esophageal cancer have been reported and where residents drink an average of 1,100 milliliters (about 37 ounces) of black tea daily. 

    Even after researchers accounted for factors that could affect the risk of esophageal cancer, including use of tobacco, alcohol or opium, and sociodemographic factors, the heightened risk with scalding-hot tea remained.

  • Colorectal cancer screening increases in people under 50 after ACS updates guideline

    Researchers from the American Cancer Society found that colorectal cancer screening rates more than doubled among people ages 45 to 49 after the ACS changed its guideline last year to recommend screening for that age group. Previously, the guideline recommended screening start at age 50 for people at average risk. 

    This new study was published December 18, 2019, in CANCER, a peer reviewed journal of the ACS.

    ACS updated its guideline in May 2018, partly in response to rising rates of colorectal cancer cases among younger people. The new guideline lowers the age that it recommends people at average begin screening, from 50 to 45.

    To find out whether the update made a difference, investigators led by Stacey Fedewa, PhD, looked at responses from 5,800 people ages 45 to 49 who took part in the 2018 National Health Interview Survey. They reported whether they’d had any of these colorectal screening tests during the past year: colonoscopy, sigmoidoscopy, CT colonography, or stool testing. They compared their answers to those of people ages 50 to 59. They found:

    • Among people 45 to 49 years old, past-year screening rates rose from 4.8% in the first quarter of 2018 to 6.6% in the second quarter, 8.8% in the third quarter, and 11.7% in the fourth quarter.

    • An estimated 592,351 people reported past-year screening in the fourth quarter compared with 226,656 in the first quarter.

    • Reports of screening did not increase among people in their 50s.

    The researchers speculate that last year’s guideline update made doctors and patients more aware of the need for colorectal cancer testing in this age group. They say similar increases in screening rates followed updates in guidelines for prostate and breast cancers.

    Colorectal cancer screening recommendations:

    • People at average risk of colorectal cancer should start regular screening at age 45.

    • People who are in good health and with a life expectancy of more than 10 years should continue regular colorectal cancer screening through the age of 75.

    • People ages 76 through 85 should make a decision with their medical provider about whether to be screened, based on their own personal preferences, life expectancy, overall health, and prior screening history.

    • People over 85 should no longer get colorectal cancer screening.

    People at higher than average risk because of family history or personal history of colorectal cancer, certain types of polyps, certain colorectal diseases or syndromes, or personal history of radiation treatment to the abdomen or pelvis should talk to their doctor about a screening plan.

    NOTE: This article by Stacy Simon first appeared on  

  • Study finds losing weight after 50 may lower breast cancer risk

    Women who lose weight after age 50 and keep it off have a lower risk of breast cancer than women whose weight stays the same, according to a study from researchers at the American Cancer Society, the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, and others. Being overweight is a known risk for breast cancer after menopause, but this is the first large study to show that losing weight can reduce this risk. The findings did not include women using post-menopausal hormone therapy.

    The study was published December 17, 2019 in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute.

    More than 2 of out of 3 women in the US is overweight or obese . The findings show it's never too late to benefit from losing weight, and that goes for women who've gained weight even after age 50. "Our results suggest that even a modest amount of sustained weight loss is associated with lower breast cancer risk for women over 50," said Lauren Teras, PhD, lead author of the study.

    The details

    Researchers looked at 180,885 women from 10 studies in the Pooling Project of Prospective Studies of Diet and Cancer. They recorded the women's weights 3 times over about 10 years: when they enrolled, about 5 years later, and about 5 years after that. Weight changes of 2 kilograms or less (about 4.4 lbs) were counted as stable.

    They found the more weight women lost, the lower their risk of breast cancer. Losing even a small amount of weight lowered risk.

    • Women who lost 2 to 4.5 kg (about 4.4 to 10 lbs.) had a 13% lower risk than women with stable weight.
    • Women who lost 4.5 to 9 kg (10- 20 lbs.) had a 16% lower risk.
    • Women who lost 9 kg or more (20+ lbs.) had a 26% lower risk.
    • Women who lost 9 kg or more and gained some (but not all) of the weight back had a lower risk of breast cancer compared with those whose weight was stable.

    Take control of your weight

    Although the findings did not include women using post-menopausal hormone therapy and the results were seen more in women who were overweight or obese, Teras said getting to a healthy body weight has many health benefits and is a good goal for everyone.

    Getting to a healthy weight and staying there is not easy for most people. Losing even a small amount of weight – for example, half a pound a week – is a good place to start.

    Read our tips for making smart choices that can help you achieve a weight that's right for you. 

    Citation: Sustained weight loss and risk of breast cancer in women ≥50 years: a pooled analysis of prospective data . Published December 17, 2019 in Journal of the National Cancer Institute. First author Lauren R. Teras, PhD, American Cancer Society, Atlanta.

    Written By: Stacy Simon, Senior Editor, News
    Originally published on

  • Study finds possible link between hair dye, straighteners, and breast cancer

    ​A study from researchers at the National Institute of Health (NIH) found that women who used permanent hair dye and chemical hair straighteners had a higher risk of breast cancer than women who didn't use them. The study was published December 4, 2019 in the International Journal of Cancer.

    This is the latest study to look at possible links between cancer and chemical hair products. Previous studies have had mixed results. The NIH study looked at data from 46,709 women in the Sister Study. Participants are American women who did not have cancer when they enrolled in the study but who had a sister diagnosed with breast cancer.

    Researchers observed that women who regularly used permanent hair dye during the year before they enrolled in the Sister Study had a 9% higher risk of developing breast cancer. Women who used semi-permanent or temporary hair dye had little or no increased risk.

    Greater risk among African-American women

    Among African-American women, using permanent dyes was associated with a 45% increased risk of breast cancer, compared with a 7% increased risk for white women. The study authors suggest this may be because hair products marketed to black women contain different chemicals than those marketed to white women. Among black women (but not white women), using the products more often was also linked to a greater increase in risk.

    "Researchers have been studying the possible link between hair dye and cancer for a long time, but results have been inconsistent," said corresponding author Alexandra White, PhD, in a statement. "In our study, we see a higher breast cancer risk associated with hair dye use, and the effect is stronger in African-American women, particularly those who are frequent users."

    Straightener use was also linked with a higher breast cancer risk. Use of straighteners was much more common among black women than white women.

    Putting it into context

    Observational studies can sometimes show a possible link (as this study did), but they can't show cause and effect. Although the researchers found an association between permanent hair dye use and women getting breast cancer, they did not conclude that using permanent hair dye causes breast cancer. Other types of research would be needed to show this.

    Also, the results of this study need to be viewed in the context of other studies that have looked at this issue. Previous studies have had mixed results: some have shown a possible link between hair dyes and breast cancer, but others have not. This means there's still no clear answer for women who are concerned about a possible increase in the risk of breast cancer (or other cancers) from coloring their hair.

    Co-author Dale Sandler, PhD, said in a statement, "We are exposed to many things that could potentially contribute to breast cancer, and it is unlikely that any single factor explains a woman's risk. While it is too early to make a firm recommendation, avoiding these chemicals might be one more thing women can do to reduce their risk of breast cancer."

    Breast cancer risk factors

    The American Cancer Society recommends women who want to lower their risk for developing breast cancer make lifestyle changes that have strong evidence showing they have an effect.

    • Get to and stay at a healthy weight. Being overweight or obese increases breast cancer risk. This is especially true after menopause and for women who gain weight as adults.
    • Exercise regularly. Evidence is growing that regular physical activity reduces breast cancer risk, especially in women past menopause.
    • Limit or avoid alcohol. Even small amounts of alcohol can increase breast cancer risk.
    • Avoid or limit hormone replacement therapy (HRT) to help control night sweats, hot flashes, and other symptoms of menopause. Postmenopausal women who take a combination of estrogen and progestin are more likely to develop breast cancer. If you do decide to try HRT, it is best to use it at the lowest dose that works for you and for as short a time as possible. 

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