What You Can Do to Find the Cause of Breast Cancer

Fill out a form online, and join the Army of Women willing to participate in research trials.

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Certainly a lot of progress has been made in the fight against breast cancer: more effective treatments, less disfiguring surgery, and genetic testing and high-tech imaging to catch it earlier. Yet, little is known about what actually triggers the disease. In fact, 70 percent of breast cancers have no explainable cause. Now women can join the effort to help researchers identify what leads to breast cancer—with the ultimate goal of preventing it. All you need to do is fill out a free online form to join the "Army of Women." (It took me five minutes.) You'll then receive twice-monthly E-mails telling you about research studies looking for participants.

"We have 312,000 people enrolled, but we're hoping to get to a million," breast surgeon Susan Love tells me. She's heading the initiative, launched a year ago with a grant from the Avon Foundation. Researchers are looking for healthy women of various ages as well as breast cancer survivors (women and men). One study at Stanford School of Medicine is looking for volunteers to study the impact that too much stress and too little sleep has on a woman's risk of developing cancer. Another is looking at a woman's personal and family medical history, and one is offering yoga classes to breast cancer patients to see if the classes can help reduce post-treatment fatigue. Here's the full list.

Love says she was motivated to form the army after speaking with researchers and learning that they were having a hard time finding volunteers. One study, designed to look for certain tumor markers in breast milk, is looking for a very particular group of women: those who are breast-feeding and scheduled to have a breast biopsy. "The researchers thought it would take six years to recruit 250 women," Love says. "Over the past year, we've been able to find them 234." Another study looking at diet and exercise to prevent breast cancer in postmenopausal women met its recruiting goals in just a day from army volunteers.

The initiative could also help recruit more African-American women into trials since they're currently underrepresented. While some have joined the initiative, Love says she'd like to see even more. She also plans to work with the National Cancer Institute to use the huge database as a way to periodically survey women in order to track any relationship between their lifestyle habits and breast cancer. She'd like to know what role diet, environmental toxins, exercise, and overall lifestyle play in breast cancer, and to see if her hunch—that breast cancer in younger women is, like cervical cancer, caused by a virus—turns out to be true. "When I was a medical resident decades ago, we treated abnormal pap smears with hysterectomies. Now we know that a virus is involved in cervical cancer, and we have a vaccine to protect against it. I think we need to start looking at viral causes for premenopausal breast cancer."

Check it out: AOL's That's Fit blog has information on ways to support efforts to fight breast cancer while staying active.