Researchers at UMass Amherst Survey Smith, Mount Holyoke Alumnae to Study Link Between Breast Cancer and Physical Activity

AMHERST, Mass. - Public health researchers at the University of Massachusetts are conducting a one-year pilot study of 240 graduates of Smith and Mount Holyoke colleges to help determine how physical activity is related to breast cancer risk.

The study is funded by a $75,000 grant from the Massachusetts Department of Public Health and is the first step toward completion of a national survey, according to project head Lisa Chasan-Taber, assistant professor of biostatistics and epidemiology at UMass. In the survey, researchers will document the frequency, duration, and intensity of physical activity for the group of women being studied, Chasan-Taber says.

"Physical activity is a key element because it is the only modifiable risk factor and the primary non-chemical prevention strategy for breast cancer," Chasan-Taber says. That’s because moderate to high levels of physical activity in women may lower lifetime exposure to estrogen, a known trigger for breast cancer, she says.

Working with three other UMass professors – Patty Freedson, exercise science, and Philip Nasca and Elaine Puleo, biostatistics and epidemiology – Chasan-Taber is developing a questionnaire to measure both current and lifetime physical activity in women ages 39 to 65 who graduated in the classes of 1960 through 1980 at Smith and Mount Holyoke. The detailed questionnaire is designed to show how much and what kinds of exercise women get at different ages and stages of their lives, and measures everything from participation in active sports, to household chores and yard work, to the physical activity associated with caring for small children.

In addition, a small group of participants will be fitted with a battery-powered accelerometer, a device that measures physical activity. The readings from this sample will be used to verify the information collected from the survey, Chasan-Taber says.

The data collection method for the project is designed to be used in a larger, long-range survey of physical activity and breast cancer outlined in a grant proposal to the National Institutes of Health that would include graduates from the group of women’s colleges known as the Seven Sisters. Besides Smith and Mount Holyoke, that group includes Bryn Mawr, Vassar, Barnard, Radcliffe, and Wellesley colleges. Chasan-Taber says the women’s college graduates will provide the basic, detailed information needed by researchers and they are in the age group where breast cancer is typically diagnosed.