First Nations in B.C. face lower cancer survival rates than non-First Nations

Researchers say culturally safe places and better access to screening might increase participation and help lower rates of specific cancers.

Indigenous women were 92 per cent more likely to develop cervical cancer than non-Indigenous women

Mohawk filmmaker Roxann Whitebean created Thunder Blanket to share the story of First Nations woman's cancer experience. She feared losing her hair, not for vanity, but because of the cultural significance of long hair, which she said signifies 'strength and honour' in her culture. (Daynah Danger)

Indigenous people in British Columbia showed an overall lower rate of most cancers but were also more likely to die if they did have the disease, according to a new study from the B.C. Cancer Agency.

The agency partnered with the First Nations Health Authority to compare cancer development and survival rates between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people who were diagnosed with cancers between 1993 and 2010.

Poorer survival rates for Indigenous people were observed in 10 of 15 cancer types examined in women and 10 of 12 cancer sites examined in men.

Experts suspect survival rates are impacted by both the limited access to care in rural areas, and fears of racism, that prevent some First Nations people from asking for help.

"Within First Nations in B.C., cancer is a very difficult issue to speak about, acknowledge or respond to due to the continued impacts of residential schools," said Preston Guno, Director of Indigenous Cancer Care, B.C. Cancer Agency.

Cancer care researchers say services need to cater to First Nations people, taking care to respect traditions.

More Indigenous patients will participate if the setting is safe and culturally sensitive.

The study also found that lung cancer rates were rising among Indigenous people faster than they were declining in non-Indigenous populations.

But the most glaring gap showed up in womens' health.

Indigenous people showed similar or lower rates of most cancers, except when it came to cervical and colorectal cancer.

In particular, Indigenous women were 92 per cent more likely to develop cervical cancer than non-Indigenous women and 22 per cent more likely to develop colorectal cancer.

Indigenous men were also 32 per cent more likely to develop colorectal cancer, according to the data.

Rural access issues

"We really need to work with our partners in the First Nations Health Authority to try to develop better ways of increasing participation in cervical cancer screening in our First Nations women," said Dr. John Spinelli, vice president of population oncology and the B.C. Cancer Agency.

The agency is developing an Indigenous cancer strategy in partnership with the First Nations Health Authority, B.C. Association of Aboriginal Friendship Centres and Métis Nation.

It is expected to be released sometime this fall.