Cancer grant examines impact of COVID-19 on cancer-related behaviors

Mary Charlton, PhD

The University of Iowa’s Holden Comprehensive Cancer Center has received a supplemental grant from the National Cancer Institute (NCI). The $100,000 award will fund research about the impact of COVID-19 and social distancing on cancer-related behaviors. This collaborative study in Iowa is being led by Mary Charlton, PhD, a member of the Holden Epidemiology and Population Science Program and associate professor in the department of epidemiology in the College of Public Health.

“I think we’re really fortunate to have such a renowned cancer center in Iowa that has access to these types of research funds so we can really be at the forefront of figuring out what the impact of this all is on our population in Iowa,” says Charlton.

Several years ago, Charlton and her team received a supplement to the NCI Holden Cancer Center Support Grant to focus on rural cancer prevention and control. The goal was to determine how Holden could help improve the cancer burden throughout the state. Her team had planned to do a survey as part of that rural supplement when the pandemic began.

The team discussed social distancing and the profound impact on cancer-related behaviors and risks, including increased drinking and smoking, financial stressors, poor diet, mental health issues, and isolation. On the flip side, Charlton and her team wondered whether people were practicing positive behaviors during the quarantine, including getting more exercise and eating a healthier diet.

The team began to change their approach, discussing how things had changed because of the pandemic, rather than just focusing on one point in time.

“I had talked to a lot of the other NCI cancer centers who also had received the rural cancer supplement,” says Charlton. “Everybody felt really strongly that we can make a big contribution if a lot of cancer centers got together and did this survey about how COVID and social distancing were impacting cancer behaviors and risk factors.”

Five cancer centers—including the University of Alabama – Birmingham, Iowa, Colorado, Wayne State, and Ohio State—worked together to create a core set of survey questions. They’ll use these for the first wave of the survey.

General population surveys will be sent during the summer and Charlton’s team will collect responses during the next few months. They’ll use the information they receive to determine how to mitigate cancer risks.

“Not just in terms of COVID-19, but in terms of long-term cancer ramifications,” says Charlton. “Because sadly, as we all know, long after this pandemic is gone, cancer will still be a formidable challenge for all of us.”