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Cancer screening program starts in the Deh Cho

Roxanna Thompson
Northern News Services
Published Thursday, April 03, 2008

DEH CHO - Scraping a fecal sample onto a card using a wooden stick may not sound very appealing, but it could save your life.

Educating people on the risks of colorectal cancer is one of Dr. John Morse's primary jobs. His hope is knowledge will force people to look beyond the unpleasant testing procedure.

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Virginia Sabourin, a community health representative in Fort Simpson, holds up the testing kit that is being used in the new colorectal cancer screening program. - Roxanna Thompson/NNSL photo

"It has to do with the gross factor," he said.

The test requires using a wooden stick to place a small amount of the sample on a card, which is then closed.

Morse, an internal medicine specialist with Yellowknife's Stanton Territorial Hospital, is part of a new territory-wide screening initiative.

The high rate of colorectal cancer, which includes cancer of the colon or rectum, in the Northwest Territories prompted the development of the program, said Morse.

The territories' rate for this type of cancer is 50 per cent higher than the national average for men and 67 per cent higher for women. After skin cancer, colorectal cancer is the most common internal cancer, said Morse. Between 1998 to 2002 it accounted for 23 per cent of new cancer cases in the territory, according to statistics from the Department of Health and Social Services.

"It's a serious cancer but if it's treated properly it can be cured," said Morse.

The new screening program is designed to detect early signs of the cancer so treatment can begin as soon as possible. When the cancer is diagnosed and treated early the five-year survival rate is more than 90 per cent, Morse said.

The Deh Cho is the first region that the screening program has been implemented in. The program started in November and is targeting everyone between the ages of 50 and 75.

The Deh Cho was chosen as the starting point because health officials were eager to take on the program. Also, along with Fort Smith and the Beaufort Delta, the Deh Cho has colorectal cancer rates higher than the territorial average, said Morse. Testing started in April in Fort Smith and is scheduled to start in the fall in the Beaufort Delta.

The screening process involves testing three consecutive stool samples for blood content that can only be seen with a microscope. If blood is detected a colonoscopy is performed, said Morse.

In the Deh Cho the program is being gradually introduced into the communities, said Tracy Humphrey, the manager of continuing care for Deh Cho Health and Social Services.

The program started in Wrigley where a nurse who was in the community in November contacted all those who are eligible. Out of the approximately 50 people in the target age there was a 50 per cent participation rate, said Humphrey.

The participation rate hasn't been as high in Fort Liard where the program started in January, she said. The community health representative is promoting the program and the nurses also tell people who come to the clinic about the process.

"It's still a work in progress," said Humphrey.

In Nahanni Butte and Trout Lake nurses spent an extra day in the communities explaining the program. Community health workers will be following up with individuals, said Humphrey. In Fort Simpson, health promotion officers will be spreading the word. The program hasn't started yet in Fort Providence.

"You have to be creative in each of the communities," she said.

The test is voluntary but participation is "highly recommended," said Humphrey.

Testing kits are available at all of the health centres. However, many people aren't eager to participate in the test, said Morse.

People need to be educated to get over the gross factor because studies have shown the early detection provided by the test saves lives, said Morse.

The reason for the higher colorectal cancer rates in the Northwest Territories is uncertain.

"I think it has to have something to do with what we eat," said Morse.

High fat diets are known to promote colon cancers. Although aboriginal people are used to diets high in fat there are different types of fat in store-bought versus traditional foods, he said.

The slightly higher rates for this cancer in the Deh Cho, Fort Smith and the Beaufort Delta could be a result of the types of food being eaten and the higher percentage of aboriginal residents, he said. Morse encourages everyone in the target age group to get tested.

"We want to reach the maximum number of people," he said.