Lack of cancer screening in the lower city and other areas around Hamilton are a likely cause for our region having some of the lowest cancer survival rates in the province, health officials say.

Not enough Hamiltonians, especially in the lower city, are getting screened for breast and colon cancer, and it's contributing to our five-year survival rates lagging behind the provincial average, said Dr. Bill Evans, president of the Juravinski Hospital and Cancer Centre and regional vice-president of Cancer Care Ontario.

Evans made the comments this morning during the unveiling of local Cancer System Quality Index (CSQI) rates. The numbers encompass the Local Health Integrated Network (LHIN) for Hamilton, Niagara, Halton, Brant, Haldimand and Norfolk.

Data shows screening in the lower city is among the lowest in the LHIN.

For example, fewer than half of women there who should be getting regular pap tests are getting them, Cancer Care Ontario maps show. Only parts of St. Catharines and Norfolk County have numbers that low.

Screening improves survival rates

Figures also show that the lower city lags behind the rest of the LHIN in terms of mammograms among women aged 50 to 74. Fewer than half of women get them regularly.

These rates tend to be associated with lower income and education, as well as the number of residents whose first language is neither English nor French, Evans said.

But "if we can detect cancer early then survival rates go up," he said.

Andrea Ross is evidence of the power of early screening.

The 36-year-old youth worker has a family history of breast cancer. She was screened in Hamilton three years ago and found a tumour that required a mastectomy.

Encouraging friends to get screened

Three years later, the Guelph resident is optimistic about reaching the five-year survival mark.

"I tell people to go and get screened," she said. "I encourage friends of mine who have a family history of breast cancer."

Hamilton's public health unit is focusing on increasing screening rates in the lower city. A new project is in the works to make low-income residents more aware of cancer screening.

For residents with low incomes, cancer screening "is probably not as big of a priority when you're struggling to feed your children or keep a roof over your head," said Faye Parascandalo, public health nurse.

The health unit also has the Women's Health Education Program, which encourages South Asian, Chinese and Arabic women to get screened for breast, cervical and colorectal cancer.

Immigrants are more likely to lack a family doctor or the language skills to navigate the health care system, said public health nurse Tricia Hack. But since 2003, the program has been making gains.

Results positive overall

Another bright light is the opening of a new lung diagnostic assessment at St. Joseph's, as well as the new Walker Family Cancer Centre in St. Catharines. Both will help lung cancer patients get appropriate care faster, Evans said. That should improve the survival rate.

Evans was pleased with the CSQI results overall, which showed the Hamilton LHIN as at or above the provincial average in most areas.

"In every LHIN, there are some metrics that are better or worse than the provincial average, and we're no different," he said.

"What this does is gives us incentive to do better in an area where we're not performing well, and address the issue of survival for breast and lung cancer in particular."