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environment general science genetics health and medicine space technology May 28, 2003 
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Cancer Watchdogs (video)
August 02, 2002

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Interviewees: Geri Barish, President, "1 in 9"; Suzanne Snedeker, Cornell University; Rod Page, Cornell University.

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Produced by Joyce Gramza

Copyright ScienCentral, Inc., with additional footage from WIXT-TV Syracuse.

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Animals as Sentinels of Environmental Health Hazards - National Academy Press (1991)

Could tracking pet cancers provide a clue into why some areas have higher cancer rates than others?

This this ScienCentral News video reports on how family pets could serve as cancer watchdogs.

What advantage does this give?

Because companion animals have shorter life spans than people, scientists believe cancer development is also accelerated in pets, and according to Rod Page, director of the Comparative Cancer Program at Cornell University’s School of Veterinary Medicine, "The types of cancers that pets get are very similar to the types of cancers that people get." So knowledge about increases or decreases in the incidence of tumors in pets could serve as a predictor of human cancers, and perhaps even provide a link to environmental causes.

"Our pets share our environment, they are perhaps even more intimately exposed to some of the potential cancer-causing agents than we are because they don’t wear clothing, they go around on lawns that have just been treated... they are exposed to a variety of different things," Page says.

"They also don’t engage in really risky lifestyle behaviors like smoking or drinking to excess and eating a diet that might be leading to cancer." That is an advantage, he says, because of "the issues that always have to be taken into consideration when a cancer cluster is evaluated. In our pets, those confounding factors really don’t play a large role, so we don’t need to always adjust our data for that."

Cancer is one of the leading causes of death in pets, says Page, and yet "for all of the animals that will get cancer, the biggest lack of information we have is on how frequently certain types of cancers arise in animals."

Page says the new companion animal tumor registry launched with a $20,000 grant from New York State, will track pet cancers in the high-risk areas of Long Island, as well as in lower-risk "control" areas, and compare them with maps of human cancers and information on past chemical usage collected by government studies.

"If we’re successful in showing that animal cancers can be a sentinel for human cancers, we can expand this particular project to other parts of the state or to other areas of the country that may be facing similar problems," he says.

Progress Report

Geri Barish, a three-time breast cancer survivor, founded the breast cancer advocacy organization "1 in 9," and lobbied along with hundreds of breast cancer survivors for government studies of elevated cancer risk on Long Island. But the large-scale state and federal studies that resulted nearly a decade ago have yet to find a cause.

Now, nearly ten years after the federally funded Long Island Breast Cancer Study Project began, a report of its findings is to be published this month in the journal Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers and Prevention.

But a three-part series in the Long Island newspaper NewsDay reports that activists, politicians and many scientists are lamenting its lack of progress.

"I’m frustrated," says Barish, who lost a son to Hodgkin’s Disease and four dogs to cancer. "I don’t feel that we’re really gotten one step closer to the answer at all."

Computerized maps called geographic information systems (GIS) developed by the Federal effort are a potentially huge source of information for researchers, and the New York State cancer mapping project was recently expanded.

"We know the incidence of breast cancer is higher in Long Island counties," says Suzanne Snedeker, associate director of translational research Cornell program on Breast Cancer and Environmental Risk Factors (BCERF). "We don’t know the causes, that’s why we’re doing the research. We suspect environmental chemicals because other studies have shown that environmental factors might explain up to 70 percent of breast cancers."

Snedeker says overlaying the GIS maps with new data such as the rates of animal tumors will help scientists to pinpoint individual agents in the environment that can be controlled. "If we can reduce the exposures, we want to reduce the risk," Snedeker says. "That’s our ultimate goal, to reduce the risk of breast cancer and other cancers that are related to environmental chemicals."

Barish, too, still hopes for answers. "I’m a statistic," she says. "I’m there already. And so I’m now fighting for my children and for god-willing my grandchildren, and for all of those people who haven’t been diagnosed—and I hate to say the word—yet."

by Joyce Gramza

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