Lung cancer: the "continuing disaster"
Cancer affects ethnic groups differently

by Cheryl Leschasin
Northern News Services

Five most common causes of cancer deaths in NWT 1990-1996.
MEN                DEATHS

Lung                 84
Colon & Rectum       21
Stomach              17
Prostate             15
Pancreas              9

WOMEN             DEATHS

Lung                 46
Breast               25
Colon&Rectum         18 
Pancreas             12
Stomach               5

NNSL (Apr 07/97) - Not so many decades ago, cancer was relatively rare in the North, especially among aboriginal people.

But over the last six years, a total of 704 new cases of cancer were reported to the NWT Cancer Registry. During the same period, 347 death certificates indicated cancer as a direct or contributing cause of death.

And lung cancer, which caused 130 deaths in men and women from 1991 to 1996, now leads the cancer mortality rate for both men and women.

The numbers are especially prominent in men, where lung cancer death is four times more common than colon and rectal cancer, the second most common cause of cancer death.

"Lung cancer, our continuing disaster, has high mortality rates because it is virtually untreatable, even if detected early," said NWT medical officer Dr. Andre Corriveau.

Cervical cancer is the most highly diagnosed cancer in women in the NWT. One hundred and forty-five cases were reported between 1991 and 1996. However, this form of cancer is usually detected early and is easily treatable.

Representing 35.1 per cent of cancer diagnoses, only 2.8 per cent of deaths result from cervical cancer.

Across the NWT, important ethnic differences can be observed. For example, Inuit patients are diagnosed with lung cancer two to three times more often than non-aboriginals and three to 4.5 times more often than Dene.

Why the enormous lung cancer diagnosis rate for Inuit men? Corriveau said there is no official cause. However, there are two theories in circulation.

The first is increased exposure to burning seal oil or poorly ventilated oil stoves. The second theory is exposure to the CMV virus, a condition which harms the lungs.

While Inuit struggle with lung cancer, Dene face daunting colon and rectal cancer rates. Linked to dietary change and abandonment of traditional foods, colon and rectal cancer lead cancer diagnoses rates in Dene men and is second only to cervical cancer in Dene women.

Breast cancer is the second highest cause of cancer death in women. However, better preventative treatment may soon be available to Northern women.

Under the current system, women over the age of 50 are now referred to a southern hospital or clinic for mammograms every second year. But Corriveau indicated that many women do not take the exam because they don't want to travel out of their community.

Corriveau said a committee is currently considering the feasibility of a portable mammogram machine. Topping the list of obstacles is the ease of transportation of the delicate machine and costs.