Fort Chip cancer rates higher than expected: report

The number of cancer cases in Fort Chipewyan is higher than expected, according to a report from Alberta Health Services released Friday.

The number of cancer cases in Fort Chipewyan is higher than expected, according to a report from Alberta Health Services released Friday.

Fifty-one cancers in 47 people were found in the remote community, 300km north of Fort McMurray, between 1995 and 2006, a dozen more than the 39 cancers that were expected, and the incidences of some cancers warrant more followup, the report said.

"The increased number of cases of biliary tract cancers, cancers in the blood and lymphatic system and cancers of unknown primary seen in the most recent six years (2001-2006) compared to the years 1995-2000 of the investigation warrant closer monitoring of cancer occurrences in Fort Chipewyan in the coming years," the report says.

"Further investigation is required to evaluate if there is a risk posed by living in Fort Chipewyan. This would be done by tracking a cohort of residents who have lived in the area within the past 20 to 30 years."

The increases are based on a very small number of cases, and could be due to chance or increased detection, the report says.

However, the possibility the increase is due to an increased risk in the community "cannot be ruled out," the report says, and it recommends analyzing other risk factors such as lifestyle, family history and occupational and environmental exposures.

Community leaders feel vindicated by the report, George Poitras of the Mikisew Cree First Nation in Fort Chipewyan said Friday.

"It's about time that we're getting these results confirming what we've been saying all along,"  he said.  "But at the same time, it's kind of upsetting.  Nobody wants to know our community is afflicted with cancer because we don't know who's going to be impacted next."

In 2006, Dr. John O'Connor, the physician in Fort Chipewyan, reported six suspected cases of cholangiocarcinomas, a rare form of bile duct cancer.

Of those six cases, two were confirmed in the study. Three more cases were other forms of cancer, and another case was not cancer.

The report found that the observed number of cholangiocarcinomas were "within the expected range" and there were lower than expected rates in some other types of cancer.

Study reviewed by independent experts

"We would all like … to get a black and white answer, something that's clear cut," Dr. Tony Fields, vice-president of the Cancer Corridor of Alberta Health Services, said at a news conference in Edmonton on Friday. "But we typically find ourselves in shades of grey."

The study, which was conducted by Dr. Yiqun Chen, was reviewed by independent experts from Australia, New Zealand and the United States, as well as two Canadian Aboriginal researchers. One of those researchers was recommended by the Nunee Health Board Society in Fort Chipewyan.

The review by the Alberta Health Services came after years of lobbying by health officials and community members in Fort Chipewyan.

Local people believe the oilsands developments located upstream from their community have caused higher-than-normal cancer rates in the community.

However, the methods used by the study also attracted controversy.

In November, community members rejected the findings of the study before they were released, because they felt researchers didn't spend enough time talking to people who live in Fort Chipewyan.