A report released last week by Alberta’s top doctor on incidences of cancer in Fort Chipewyan has caused anger, doubt and frustration in the community, whose leaders are upset the data was not shared with them first before being made public.
The report shows three types of cancer are occurring more frequently in Fort Chipewyan than the rest of the province, though rates of most cancers are normal overall.
Compiled by the office of Alberta’s chief medical officer, Dr. James Talbot, the data from 1992-2011 shows that “overall, cancer rates in the region are what would be expected in the rest of Alberta.”
According to the report, there were 81 cases of cancer reported in the study period where the expected number would be 79 cases.
While the numbers mean that cancers are not significantly higher than expected, Talbot said the higher-than-average frequency of cervical cancer, lung cancer and bile duct cancer are cause for concern.
Within the study period, there were four reported cases of cervical cancer when only one would be expected. For lung cancer in women, there were eight cases, while four would be expected.
For bile duct cancer – a very rare form of cancer typically affecting fewer than one in 200,000 people – there were three cases when Talbot said they would expect zero. A fourth case of bile duct cancer was recently detected in Fort Chip but falls outside of the study period.
While higher than average, the numbers for all three cancers are low, Talbot said.
Talbot said the human papilloma virus (HPV) has been determined to be the primary risk factor for cervical cancer and that vaccines and regular pap smears would aid in prevention. For lung cancer, he said the primary risk factor is tobacco use.
Bile duct cancer is more complicated, the doctor said. The American Cancer Society has outlined more than a dozen causes, which include obesity, diabetes, cirrhosis and Hepatitis C, among others.
“While it’s difficult to prevent because there are multiple risk factors, those risk factors can be reduced with chronic disease prevention programs,” Talbot said, adding that Alberta Health Services is committed to working with the community on preventing those cancers.
‘Gross negligence’ by province: chief
Talbot released the study last Monday via a press conference, though the material was originally supposed to be given to the community beforehand. A meeting between Talbot and the community was scheduled for February, but First Nation leaders cancelled it after the province refused to give them the data ahead of time.
Both the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation (ACFN) and Mikisew Cree First Nation were outraged to hear the results of the cancer report through media rather than directly from the government.
“Why the government continues to undermine the leadership of Fort Chipewyan is beyond me,” said Mikisew Chief Steve Courtoreille. “Health Minister Horne had promised to get us a copy of the report prior to releasing these statistics and that didn’t happen.”
While a copy of the report, obtained by the Liberal Party health critic through Freedom of information and Protection and Privacy, was sent to the Nunee Health Authority in Fort Chipewyan late on Friday, it did not reach leaders until Monday morning.
The community was not otherwise notified of the press conference or invited to attend. ACFN attended the press conference via conference call.
“This is gross negligence. The leaders of Fort Chipewyan have been requesting a thorough analysis on incidences of cancer in our community for years. Not only was this research and study done without our direct participation, we were left in the dark about key findings and the announcement of the release to the public,” ACFN Chief Allan Adam said in a statement released Monday.
According to ACFN, Alberta Health Services had agreed to reschedule a new meeting date to share their findings with leaders in Fort Chipewyan first. A date had not been confirmed when the report was released.
“It’s disappointing to know that our requests to be properly informed are repeatedly denied. This information is about our people, our health and our concerns,” Adam said.
“Why is it that opposition leaders are more open to sharing information with our Nation than the current Alberta House leaders? Why are we almost always the last to know?”
Leaders said they question the methodology of the report, which is not peer reviewed and fails to draw conclusive results as to the causes of the three cancers in question.
“The government of Alberta has consistently downplayed the significance of cancer in my community and they have done that again today in their reports to the media that there is no reason for alarm,” Courtoreille said on Monday.
“It’s time for a real study, that is peer reviewed and done in partnership with our communities,” Adam said.