We run to cure cancer. We ride to conquer cancer. We walk to end cancer. Wouldn’t it be great if we could prevent breast cancer before it starts?

Canadian researchers are on the leading edge of not only finding better ways to diagnose and treat breast cancer, but also showing the world how the disease might be prevented in the future.

“Canada is really, really leading in breast cancer research,” says Dr. Morag Park, a cancer researcher and professor at McGill University in Montreal. “We’ve got leaders in imaging, clinical trials and animal modelling,” she says.

Park studies what happens at the molecular level when someone develops cancer. “Many of us are probably walking around with the beginnings of cancer and never get it,” she says. “What are the switches that allow cancer to develop? It sat there for 15 years and suddenly started to grow. That is not well understood.”

Researchers around the globe are developing and linking studies and will begin to answer this question. “It is exciting,” she says. Plus, new technologies give scientists the power to handle and analyse huge amounts of data. From that information comes knowledge on better treatments and ways to prevent cancer.

One of the weightiest prevention studies in the world is underway in Canada. The Canadian Partnership for Tomorrow Project, now enrolling people in British Columbia, Alberta, Ontario, Quebec and the Atlantic provinces, will help to answer questions such as: Who gets cancer? Who doesn’t? Where do they live? Where do they work? What do they eat? How much do they exercise? The study will follow 300,000 Canadians over the next 20 to 30 years, who have agreed to be monitored for diet, physical activity level, sun exposure, tobacco use, exposure to chemicals, type of work, place of residence, and possible genetic factors.

Unlike many studies which are retrospective (looking back) and rely on people’s memory of what they did, this study is prospective (looking forward) so results are more accurate.

Some enrollees, of course, will develop diseases such as breast cancer over the course of the study, and the data will reveal what patterns led to that. “It looks at environment, genes, behaviour and how those may inter-relate to cause breast cancer,” says Dr. Heather Bryant, vice-president of cancer control at the Canadian Partnership Against Cancer in Toronto.