Step up to help cancer research

Gerry Phelan
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Sometimes we feel so helpless. A few weeks ago, a friend called and asked me for a favour, that I deliver the eulogy at his funeral. He had just been diagnosed with cancer.

Cancer is an oft-spoken word in the Phelan clan. It has already claimed too many of us, which makes it that much easier for me to give my support to a new research project. A while back, I signed up for a nationwide cancer study, and I’d like you to do likewise.

The survey can be done online ( or in person. I answered various questions about cancer in my family, my own medical history and lifestyle. They asked what I eat, how much I exercise, how much alcohol I drink, things like that; personal, but not overly probing.

I initially declined the rest of the “tests.” The blood work and other stuff were not required as such, and I really couldn’t make the case to myself to get any unnecessary needles punched into my arms.

Several letters reminded me I could opt to do these at any time, and finally, there was a clinic not far from my house, and the promise it would take less than 20 minutes.

The blood work was easy; the urine sample, no problem. They also wanted clippings from my toenails. The weight and height tests were, well, let’s say interesting. Height was measured standing and sitting. I’m told that’s because researchers are interested in the relationship between the two. Somehow it helps assess where people carry their weight — whether they are apple shaped or pear-shaped — and how that might affect health.

A study spokesperson says there is some suggestion that how long or short your torso is compared to your legs may also be a predictor of health issues.

I was weighed on a Tanita machine which measures the amount of fat and muscle you have in your total body, your torso, your arms and your legs. It tells researchers the total proportion of fat and how it is distributed. The machine distinguishes between weight that comes from muscle or fat. It also measures where the fat is.

Officials tell me it seems to be fairly generally agreed that for heart problems, having your fat around your butt is healthier, or less unhealthy, then having it around your belly. The Tanita information will let researchers identify whether that is true for cancer.

The national study is known as the Canadian Partnership for Tomorrow Project. In our region, it falls under the Atlantic Partnership for Tomorrow’s Health (the Atlantic PATH), investigating environmental, lifestyle and genetic factors related to the development of cancer.

It is trying to recruit 30,000 people in Atlantic Canada between the ages of 18 and 69. Participants’ health will be followed for 30 years through cancer registries, hospitalization and various other health records. They hope to figure out why some people develop particular cancers while others do not.

Project manager David Thompson says the target in Newfoundland and Labrador is 6,600 people. They have less than half that number now, and it is vital for the success of the study that more of us step up to the plate. There is a risk the project won’t reach the full complement, the only province where that would be the case.

Thompson points out that would be particularly disappointing because we have about the highest rate of cancer in the country, and for geographic and historical reasons are a somewhat different community from the rest of Atlantic Canada and the rest of Canada. It is vital that Newfoundland and Labrador’s uniqueness is captured and represented.

We’ve all been touched by cancer, and being tapped for a eulogy by someone who could die from the disease is a true wake-up call. Kind words at a funeral are easy; the study allows me to put good thoughts into action and perhaps help someone else down the road.

I’m glad I could do it. Will you?   

Gerry Phelan is a journalist and former broadcaster. He can be reached at

Organizations: Canadian Partnership, Atlantic Partnership for Tomorrow

Geographic location: Atlantic Canada, Newfoundland and Labrador

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