Study planned to examine cancer screening access in Northern Canada

Aboriginal health expert leads initiative to investigate barriers to cancer screening tests.


(Edmonton) Cancer screening tests can be the difference between life and death for patients with undiagnosed cancer. And although the Northwest Territories has one of the highest cancer incidence rates in Canada, some communities are less likely to access cancer screening tests than those in most provinces. Sangita Sharma, Capital Health Chair in Aboriginal Health, leader of the Aboriginal & Global Health Research Group and professor, wants to know why.

According to published reports from the N.W.T. government, the overall rate of utilization of cancer screening tests in some communities is below the national average. Sharma and her team will examine the perceived barriers, attitude and knowledge surrounding these tests through surveys and interviews with residents. The investigation will focus on remote communities of the N.W.T., some of which have an Aboriginal population of 80 per cent or more.

“[The government’s reports were] a very clear message for us that there are some barriers for people in remote communities,” said Mohammadreza Pakseresht, senior research associate in the Aboriginal & Global Health Research Group.

Sharma’s research team will work with the N.W.T. government's Department of Health and Social Services to identify potential solutions based on the survey results. Results are expected to be released in 2015.

One of the main barriers to cancer screening is distance. For some, the journey to the hospital is just the beginning: many people in the N.W.T. diagnosed with cancer must travel to Edmonton for treatment.

“People in these communities can’t just go down the road to the U of A and get treatment. They have to leave the community,” Sharma explained. “It means flying away from your family, friends and support system when you truly need them.”

According to Sharma and Pakseresht, not all anticipated deterrents will be unique to remote areas of the N.W.T. As in other parts of Canada, personal experience is expected to play a role. If someone had an unpleasant experience in the past, they may be reluctant to access the same service. Misinformation, like not knowing the recommended age to start scheduling mammograms, may also be a factor. Some cases may be as simple as preferring a different physician.

“People are very excited to work us. They’ve seen how the illness affects the community,” Sharma noted. “We don’t know what the issues are, and that’s the idea behind the project: to find out what the barriers are and what the communities see as opportunities to increase availability to health care.”