“I’m sorry, it’s cancer.” More than one third of all Canadians will hear these words at some point in their lives. The effect is far-reaching: cancer has a major impact on the lives of people being diagnosed, as well as on their families and friends.
Cancer is complex. It is a single word used to describe over 200 types of diseases. Cancer is the uncontrolled, rapid growth of cells in the body. Cancers are usually named after the part of the body where they start.
For example, cancer that starts in the colon or rectum is colorectal cancer, one of the most common cancers in the NWT.
The most common cancers in the NWT are breast, colorectal, lung and prostate cancers. These are common cancers across Canada. However, colorectal and lung cancer rates in the NWT are significantly higher than in Canada as a whole. Colorectal and lung cancers are largely preventable. Many colorectal cancers could be prevented through a healthy diet and active living, while smoking is the single greatest contributor to lung cancer.
The increasing number of people diagnosed with cancer is a great concern for all residents of the Northwest Territories. This means more of our people are living with chronic conditions, but most importantly the human and emotional cost to those living with cancer and their families is immeasurable.
When someone is diagnosed with cancer it is a highly visible and traumatic event in their lives, particularly in small tight-knit communities where everyone knows everyone. Many residents want to find out more about what is causing cancer, how we can prevent cancer, how we can identify and treat cancer, and how we can support patients and their families.
The good news is that more of us are surviving cancer. Cancer is no longer the death sentence it used to be. Treatments are more effective and are often less invasive, less painful and less life-altering. We can find some cancers early. The cancer journey, which is often a complex and difficult road, is also improving.
But there are new challenges ahead. The average age of NWT residents is rising, and cancer risk also increases with age. An older population, therefore, means more cancer. And, while it’s true that people are living longer with cancer and after treatment, it is now the leading cause of death in the NWT. Too many cancers in the NWT are being discovered in their later stages, when it is hard to treat.
Getting checked for certain cancers before anyone suspects there is a problem saves lives. Detecting cancer early is vital for our residents. The challenge is to make sure the right people get the right information and tests at the right time.
There are screening tests available for colorectal, cervical and breast cancers in the NWT. Some people are hesitant or afraid to get checked for cancer. They do not have any symptoms and feel healthy. But everyone is at risk of cancer, even if you feel fine or are healthy. You shouldn’t wait for symptoms to get checked. Many cancers have no warning signs.
Going for regular screening could mean a difference between life and death. It is recommended you talk to your doctor or other health care provider about what screening options are available to you, particularly if you are over the age of 50, or sooner if you have a family history of cancer. Routine cancer screening tests are to be repeated every one to two years.
Dr. Andre Corriveau; Chief Medical Officer, GNWT