Photo by Kenji Aryan

Why It Matters  |  What We Are Doing Who Is Involved


Why It Matters

Every Year, nearly 1.5 million Americans are diagnosed with cancer and over half a million will die. Worldwide, cancer accounted for 7.6 million deaths (around 13% of all deaths) in 2008, according to the World Health Organization.  Lung, stomach, liver, colon, breast and cervical cancers cause the most deaths.  Five risk factors lead to 30% of all cancer deaths:  obesity, low fruit and vegetable intake, lack of exercise, tobacco use, and alcohol use. Tobacco use causes 22% of global cancer deaths and 71% of global lung cancer deaths.  Deaths from cancer worldwide are expected to continue to rise to 13.1 million deaths per year by 2030.

What We Are Doing

Faculty from across the Gillings School are leaders in determining risk factors for cancer, finding ways to reduce risk, exploring better treatment options, improving quality of life among cancer survivors, and disseminating information and best practices. Read More

We place a high priority on reducing disparities in cancer risk, prevention, and survival.

UNC is a national and global leader in cancer research, treatment and outreach.  The Gillings School’s cancer research has a strong focus in North Carolina, and our cutting-edge work is transforming our ability to prevent and treat cancer in the U.S. and globally.  We are working in close collaboration with the UNC Lineberger Cancer Center to promote healthier lifestyles, earlier detection and better access to effective treatment.  We are also engaged in both local and global efforts to prevent cancers caused by the human papillomavirus (also called HPV) and by hepatitis B and C, since these viruses cause about 20% of the cancer deaths in low and middle income countries and disproportionately affect minorities in the U.S.

While advances in prevention, early detection, medical care and treatment have had a notable impact on improving cancer outcomes for some cancers and populations, we still face enormous challenges in closing the gap between what we know works to reduce cancer burden and what we actually do. In other areas, we lack fundamental knowledge. With the creation of a major fund – the University Cancer Research Fund – by the N.C. legislature in 2007, UNC is now positioned as a transformative leader in progress against cancer.  The Fund has stimulated new understanding of the genetic changes that play a role in cancer, and enabled researchers to develop new therapies to treat patients and optimize cancer outcomes for the 40,000 North Carolinians diagnosed each year.  It has also had a five-to-one return on investment, creating over 5,000 new jobs and economic returns of $968 million since inception.

The Dean of our School, Barbara K. Rimer, was recently awarded the American Cancer Society Medal of Honor for her work in breast cancer screening, and has provided national leadership as chair of the President’s Cancer Panel. For the last year the panel has been focused on uptake of the HPV vaccine, since high vaccine uptake among young women and girls would be a major milestone in cancer control and prevention.  Noel Brewer (Health Behavior) and Jennifer S. Smith (Epidemiology), two faculty members, have led national and global initiatives to increase HPV vaccination and screening and treatment coverage for cervical cancer prevention.

The Population Sciences group at the Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center is led by associate director and cancer epidemiology program leader, Andy Olshan, professor and chair of Epidemiology and Kurt Ribisl, professor, Health Behavior, leader of the cancer control and prevention program (CPC).The CPC is a nationally recognized program of innovative research, interventions and policy changes to improve cancer outcomes in North Carolina and beyond.  Professor Ribisl is an expert on tobacco-related cancer and advises the U.S. government on tobacco messaging and control of products that harm public health.  Notable CPC research has also contributed to a better understanding of access to care and other factors influence cancer treatment and outcomes.

The Cancer Epidemiology Program conducts research on cancer etiology, diagnosis, prognosis, and prevention using an interdisciplinary epidemiologic approach.  To date, this research has been conducted primarily in the context of large population-based case-control studies in North Carolina with an emphasis on inclusion of African-Americans.

With expertise in breast cancer, prostate cancer, cervical cancer, lung cancer, head and neck cancer, gastrointestinal cancer, bladder cancer, and children’s cancers, UNC is leading the nation in approaches to cancer risk assessment and reduction, patient communication, surveillance, health care provider training, and development of more effective interventions, especially among disadvantaged groups.

Who Is Involved

Our leaders in cancer come from across the Gilling School, and include our world-class faculty, staff, post-docs and students.  This overview only captures a fraction of the important research, teaching, and public service efforts in cancer at the Gillings School.  Please explore the individual leader descriptions to learn more about their work.