Oct. 20, 2022

UCalgary researcher first Canadian to receive U.S. Award for Women in Science

Christine Friedenreich recognized for pioneering work in physical activity and cancer
Christine Friedenreich
Christine Friedenreich presents at the National Cancer Institute Intramural Scientific Retreat on Oct. 11, 2022. National Cancer Institute

When Dr. Christine Friedenreich, PhD, came to the University of Calgary in 1992 to investigate the links between physical activity and cancer risk, no one else in Alberta was working in her field of research. Her early grant proposals declared that her work would someday help inform public health and clinical guidelines, but she knew proving it might be an uphill battle. 

“That was a pretty revolutionary idea at the time,” says Friedenreich, now an adjunct professor in the Cumming School of Medicine (CSM), Faculty of Kinesiology and scientific director of Cancer Epidemiology and Prevention Research, Cancer Care Alberta, Alberta Health Services.

“The idea of putting cancer patients on treadmills and getting them to exercise while undergoing cancer treatment was not at all part of clinical practice.”

Since those early days, Friedenreich’s research has helped change how people think about the health benefits of physical activity. She has led dozens of studies, authored hundreds of scientific papers and helped develop physical activity guidelines nationally and internationally.

Rosalind E. Franklin Award for Women in Science

In recognition of her pioneering work, Friedenreich, a member of the O’Brien Institute for Public Health, and the Arnie Charbonneau Cancer Institute at the CSM, received the Rosalind E. Franklin Award for Women in Cancer Research on Oct. 11 at the 2022 National Cancer Institute (NCI) Intramural Scientific Retreat at Hood College in Frederick, Maryland.

The prestigious award honours the scientific contributions of women in cancer research. It is given in tribute to Dr. Franklin, an accomplished chemist and X-ray crystallographer whose critical role in the discovery of the DNA double helix structure went largely unacknowledged.

“We chose Christine based on her decades-long contribution to understanding the role of physical activity in cancer control and prevention,” says Dr. Marie-Josephe Horner, women scientist adviser at the NCI, National Institutes of Health, and one of the nominators for her award.

Women in Science group

U.S. NCI Women Science advisers, from left, Laura Beane-Freeman, Aimée Kreimer and Marie-Josephe Hunter with Christine Friedenreich (second from left) at the NCI Intramural Scientific Retreat.

National Cancer Institute

Christine has over 30 years of experience designing and running many large pivotal studies to understand physical activity and the outcomes and risks of breast, prostate, and endometrial cancer. She is a very, very accomplished scientist, and we are absolutely delighted to honour her significant achievements.

Friedenreich was completely surprised and humbled by the honour. “There are so many excellent cancer epidemiologists around the world, and to be identified for this honour is truly a great tribute,” she says.

“The University of Calgary is thrilled to see Dr. Friedenreich honoured with this prestigious award,” says Dr. William Ghali, vice-president (research). “Dr. Friedenreich has long been a trailblazer in her field, committed to improving our understanding of the relationship between cancer and physical activity. The influence of her work has been tremendous, and we are proud of all that she has accomplished. Congratulations, Christine!”

Shifting the pendulum

Friedenreich’s career highlights include the development of two groundbreaking questionnaires: the Lifetime Total Physical Activity Questionnaire and the Past Year Total Physical Activity Questionnaire, which researchers around the globe now use to measure physical activity.

She led two large-scale projects that examined how aerobic exercise influences biomarkers associated with breast cancer: the Alberta Physical Activity and Breast Cancer (ALPHA) Trial and the Breast Cancer and Exercise Trial in Alberta (BETA).

Not only has Friedenreich seen her work inform public policy and clinical practice, but she also helped develop physical activity guidelines nationally and internationally. Recently, she sat on the committee that developed the World Health Organization’s 2020 physical activity and sedentary behaviour guidelines, which recommend levels of physical activity for health promotion, disease prevention and improving outcomes for people with chronic conditions.

“When we started out, there was opposition to incorporating physical activity into cancer care, so it is extremely gratifying to see that we’ve moved the pendulum so far. Now there is an acceptance that being physically active is something clinicians can recommend, from a prevention perspective, but also during treatment and post-treatment,” says Friedenreich. “And then to be recognized for this work — well, that’s just fabulous.”

Christine Friedenreich was awarded the O. Harold Warwick Prize from the Canadian Cancer Society in 2013, elected a Fellow of the Canadian Academy of Health Sciences in 2016 and the Royal Society of Canada in 2019. She is a past associate scientific director of the O’Brien Institute for Public Health, where she also served as interim scientific director from 2019 to 2020, and a member the Arnie Charbonneau Cancer Institute at the Cumming School of Medicine (CSM), as well as an adjunct professor at the CSM and Faculty of Kinesiology at the University of Calgary.