National organization documents cancer in Inuit communities
Canadian Partnership Against Cancer maps out patient care gaps
Health statistics reveal that cancer deaths are rising among Inuit, but too little is known about the state of cancer control in northern Canada.
The Canadian Partnership Against Cancer promises to change that, starting with a report released this month that provides baseline information on charting progress in the fight against the disease.
A report issued in May 2013 by the Canadian Cancer Society revealed that in Nunavut, home to about half of Canada’s Inuit, cancer death rates are the highest in the country, even though incidence rates for some cancers are still lower than in the rest of Canada.
Also in May 2013, Rankin Inlet resident Ellie Cansfield, whose husband died of cancer, called on the Nunavut government to develop an early detection program that is able to diagnose cancer early enough for treatment to be effective.
“It is recognized that rates of common cancers among Inuit are higher than ever before,” said Elisa Levi, director of strategies for First Nations, Inuit and Metis cancer control with the national organization.
The partnership’s mandate is to improve cancer-control strategies across the country.
Shortly after the start of its work in 2007, the group discovered that the unique situation of aboriginal communities calls for specific strategies.
Released April 14, The Inuit Cancer Control in Canada Baseline Report charts the level of knowledge and treatment of disease among Inuit.
It documents what is known about the status of the disease up to 2012, and highlights gaps in knowledge and the ability to treat cancer patients in four Inuit regions of the country: Nunavut, Nunavik, Nunatsiavut and the Inuvialuit region of the Northwest Territories.
“This is a survey of what’s currently happening,” Levi said. “It was organized to provide information to the cancer control community, to the health community, about Inuit. And on the flipside too, information to Inuit about the cancer-control community.”
The partnership also announced earlier this spring that it plans to address high rates of cancer by supporting better and more timely diagnosis and treatment through tele-oncology services in northern communities.
Among Inuit of northern Canada, cancer was “relatively unknown to past generations,” and has become “the second highest cause of death,” the report says.
Incidence of the disease is rising, particularly lung cancer, which Inuit suffer at higher rates than most other populations in the world.
The report points to smoking as a significant cause of the disease, noting that smoking rates among Inuit are three times the national average. Other major “risk factors” include physical inactivity, diet, obesity and alcohol consumption.
The reasons for increase in the disease are varied, the report says. Authors remark that Aboriginal peoples of Canada have undergone “significant transitions as a result of the loss of traditional ways of living.”
“Inuit populations in particular have experienced a rapid transition from traditional to westernized ways of life,” the report reads, “which has been linked to accelerating rates of diseases typical of western societies, including cancer and chronic diseases.”
Added to this is the relatively poor access to health care services related to cancer prevention, screening and care.
“The necessity of medical travel, health human resources shortages and lack of culturally relevant resources and services present significant barriers to effective cancer control,” the report says in its conclusion.
Health surveys of Inuit patients in the North have uncovered several weaknesses in the cancer-treatment process. They include the need for:
• Inuit-specific health data
• greater education and awareness about cancer among Inuit
• cultural competency training among health care workers
• improved access to health care
• improved patient navigation and discharge planning
• palliative care services
The Canadian Partnership on Cancer’s report drew information from more detailed surveys it conducted in Inuit communities, as well as reviews of research literature, Levi said.