Study reveals serious cancer research gaps for Black Canadians

There's no data on how the 20 most common cancers in the country affect Black people, according to a new study from the University of Ottawa.

No data on how 20 most common cancers in Canada affect Black people

People wear surgical scrubs in a health-care setting.
There's no data on how the 20 most common cancers in the country affect Black people, according to a new study from the University of Ottawa’s Interdisciplinary Centre for Black Health. (Michele Cattani/AFP/Getty Images)

In a new study, the University of Ottawa's Interdisciplinary Centre for Black Health (ICBH) has discovered "large gaps in research" on how common types of cancer affect Black people in Canada.

After conducting a meta-analysis of medical literature and the 20 most common types of cancer in Canada, the researchers behind the study found no data related to Black people.

"What we found is … a real gap when we compared [cancer] research within Black communities and research within other communities," said Jude Mary Cénat, an associate professor at the university's school of psychology and ICBH director. 

The study focused on different types of cancer including breast, cervical, colorectal, gastric, lung and prostate cancers among Black people. The researchers looked for data on incidence, stage of cancer at diagnosis, type of care received and other factors.

A man in a suit stands in front of a building.
Cénat is director of the ICBH at the University of Ottawa. (Bonnie Findley/University of Ottawa)

According to Cénat, they found "racial disparities" related to screening for certain cancers that affects the quality of health care received by Black people.

By comparison, Cénat said, thanks to research conducted in the U.S., breast cancer is known to be more aggressive in Black women than in white women. As a result, health-care guidelines in that country have been modified to call for earlier screening for Black women.

"Without research, the care cannot be adapted … [and] we cannot put in place prevention measures that are adapted to people from Black communities," he said, adding that there is an urgent need for similar data in Canada. 

A systemic problem

The study also found that members of Black communities are less likely than their white counterparts to voluntarily get screened for cancers. As a result, they tend to receive diagnoses later, increasing mortality rates.

According to Godlove Ngwafusi, a spokesperson for the African Canadian Association of Ottawa, that hesitancy is due to a deeply ingrained fear of the health-care system within Black communities. 

"The same fear about reporting crimes to police that happened to you, is the same fear about getting to the medical system that definitely discriminates against you," he said. 

A man sits outside in a polo shirt, posing for a photo.
Ngwafusi said the lack of cancer research pertaining to Black communities is an example of 'data discrimination.' (Mathieu Theriault/CBC)

Ngwafusi said that fear is compounded by a general lack of awareness within Black communities due to the absence of research into how different cancers affect them.

"There's a big hairy health monster out there that negatively impacts the Black communities disproportionately," he said. "I call that deliberate data discrimination."

Ngwafusi, who likened the study's findings to the lack of data on Black communities and COVID-19 during the early days of the pandemic, said the failure to invest in such research is "a sad reflection of negligence" on the part of the health-care system.

"Clearly, there's a systemic issue here," said Gwen Madiba, founder of non-profit Equal Chance and a member of the Black Canadian Homeless Foundation.

A woman in a home office.
Madiba's group works to empower Black women. (Kate Porter/CBC)

Madiba said many Black Canadians from low-income families lack the time to prioritize their health and the lack of data denies them an "equal chance" to get the health care they need.

"It's showing that we're navigating through systems that are not always made for us. That's very damaging," she said. "People need to know that they need to go and get screened."

The new study was published in the American Cancer Society Journal.

It recommends that "federal and provincial governments and universities should consider creating special funds to generate research on this important health issue." 


Avanthika Anand is a reporter with CBC Ottawa. You can reach her by email

With files from Gabriel Le Marquand Perreault and The Canadian Press