Breast cancer strikes Inuit, too

Nunavut women can’t get mammograms in the territory, so cancer often goes undetected until it’s too late



IQALUIT — It’s a myth that Inuit women don’t get breast cancer.

Under-reporting and inaccurate statistics have created a false belief that Inuit women are seldom victims of the disease, says Maureen Doherty, vice-president of the Nunavut Status of Women Council.

“If you look nationally at rates of breast cancer, the highest incidence of cancer among women is breast cancer. I can’t believe that Nunavut would be any different than anywhere else,” she said.

Doherty spoke about breast cancer last weekend, during a break from a breast-health project being held in Iqaluit. About a dozen women gathered around a table to discuss ways to raise awareness about the disease.

“I think just the number of people in this room that have been touched by breast cancer in one way or another, or have friends who have gone through it — I think that definitely there are women who are fighting breast cancer in Nunavut,” Doherty said.

Incomplete statistics

Statistics from the Nunavut Department of Health from last year – the only statistics available – show that there were five new cases of breast cancer registered in the territory that year.

“Our main concern was to find out how we can increase access and awareness to information and provide more support for survivors.”

– Maureen Doherty of the Nunavut Status of Women Council

In comparison, Nunavut women also reported five new cases of colon cancer and three new cases each of cervix and lung cancer.

Allison Brewer, a communications specialist with the health department, said the statistics are incomplete because many cancers and other diseases go unreported.

“I think there was time when Inuit didn’t get breast cancer and they didn’t get lung cancer and they didn’t have tooth decay,” she said.

But the participants at the breast-health project made it clear that breast cancer is no longer rare in the territory.

It was an eye-opener, Brewer said, to meet so many women who were survivors of breast cancer, or who knew women who’d had breast cancer.

“It didn’t seem to be all that isolated,” she said.

One woman unable to make the trip to Iqaluit faxed a letter, which was read aloud to the group.

She wrote that when she discovered a lump in her breast, she was told by a surgeon that breast cancer hardly ever happens to Inuit women.

“But it was a cancer and I know I will not be the last person to get it,” the letter states. “I know a few women here in (the community) that have a lump in their breast, but they are told they are too young (to have cancer), or that it is just a lump.”

Leena Evic-Twerdin was a facilitator at the two-day event.

“I think cancer, in general, is a new thing for Inuit, but breast cancer is certainly one that is still quite unspoken of. Maybe because we have very little access to the information… As well, the kind of services and medical treatments that are required, we don’t have up here,” she said.

No mammography machines

There are no mammography machines in Nunavut.

If a woman in a community finds a lump she is sent to Iqaluit, and then if Iqaluit can’t deal with it, she is sent to Ottawa for a mammogram to determine if the lump is cancerous.

In the Northwest Territories, women are sent to Yellowknife for mammograms.

For routine mammograms — a practice recommended by doctors — the GN won’t pay to send women south. Women who want routine mammograms are told to get them while on holiday or on business outside Nunavut.

That means many women, particularly in small communities, may never have a mammogram until it’s too late.

Brewer said the government is taking the problem seriously. Dollars probably could be found to purchase a mammography machine, she said, but the problem is finding technicians to run it.

At the breast-health meeting a decision was made to form an action group, which would comprise representatives from different Nunavut agencies.

“Our main concern was to find out how we can increase access and awareness to information and provide more support for survivors,” Doherty said.

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