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Inuit Have an Increased Risk of Cancer Due to High Smoking Rates, Low Food Security

September 14, 2017

4 min read

A new report developed jointly by Cancer Care Ontario and Tungasuvvingat Inuit shows that cancer risk factors are significantly more common among Inuit in Ontario and elsewhere in Canada compared to non-Aboriginal Ontarians.

The report, Cancer Risk Factors and Screening Among Inuit in Ontario and Other Canadian Regions, is the first to estimate cancer risk and screening behaviours among Inuit living in and outside Inuit Nunangat (the traditional Inuit homeland including parts of Northern coastal Labrador, Northern Quebec, the territory of Nunavut and the western edge of the Northwest Territories) and in Ontario. Results are presented alongside a historical timeline and medical travel map to highlight the unique challenges Inuit face in securing access to nutritious and affordable food, healthcare services and other basic necessities of life.

"The lack of good-quality and comprehensive Inuit health data has been a significant barrier to better understanding and reducing the risk of chronic diseases, including cancer, among Inuit," says Jason LeBlanc, Executive Director, Tungasuvvingat Inuit. "Working in partnership with Cancer Care Ontario on this report, we were able to bring together evidence from multiple sources. We look forward to using these data to target health resources appropriately and continue advocating for culturally appropriate policies and programs that will enhance the health and wellbeing of our people."

Key report findings:

  • There is a high prevalence of smoking and low prevalence of household food security among Inuit compared to non-Aboriginal Ontarians.
    • Nearly three-quarters of Inuit living in Nunangat (74%) and about one-third of Inuit in Ontario were current smokers (34%) compared to 23% of non-Aboriginal Ontarians.
    • About two-thirds (67%) of Inuit in Ontario reported living in a food-secure household (one where residents have the financial resources to access nutritious food), which is significantly less than non-Aboriginal respondents in Ontario (94%).
  • A higher proportion of Inuit living in Nunangat were overdue for colorectal cancer screening (72% of men, 66% of women) than non-Aboriginal Ontarians (43% of men, 41% of women).
  • Generally, the pattern of cancer risk for Inuit living in Ontario was similar to Inuit living outside Inuit Nunangat more broadly, with a higher proportion of current smoking overall and a lower prevalence of food-secure households than the non-Aboriginal population.
  • More Inuit-specific health data are needed for tracking and monitoring cancer disease rates and outcomes, improving the understanding of key health determinants, and assessing the impacts of interventions designed to reduce risk and disease rates in the growing Inuit population outside Inuit Nunangat.

"We know that behaviours such as tobacco use, alcohol consumption and a healthy diet can impact an individual’s risk of developing cancer, but until recently, very little research has been done on the prevalence of these behaviours among Inuit in southern Canada," says Alethea Kewayosh, Director, Aboriginal Cancer Control Unit, Cancer Care Ontario. "The data in this report provide a clear picture of the state of Inuit health in this country and show that many Inuit fare poorer across these risk factors than non-Aboriginal Ontarians. Together with Tungasuvvingat Inuit, our hope is that this knowledge will be used to inform culturally appropriate programming to effectively reduce health inequities for Inuit, wherever they live."

Cancer Care Ontario and Tungasuvvingat Inuit collaborated on this report as both groups have a shared interested in improving the health of Inuit communities across Ontario. This work is aligned with Cancer Care Ontario’s third Aboriginal Cancer Strategy, which highlights research and surveillance as a strategic priority. It is also in line with Tungasuvvingat Inuit’s commitment to establish improved data on Inuit across the country and meet the rapidly growing, complex and evolving needs of Inuit in Ontario.

In addition to gathering evidence on cancer risk factors and screening behaviours, the report also highlights a need for culturally appropriate, system-level interventions to improve the health and well-being of Inuit in all regions of Canada. The path towards healthier communities involves not only taking practical steps towards encouraging healthy behaviours, but also creating environments that support individuals, families and communities in making healthy choices.

In 2016, Cancer Care Ontario released Path to Prevention: Recommendations for Reducing Chronic Disease in First Nations, Inuit and Métis. The report provided the Government of Ontario with 22 recommended policies and interventions to reduce population-level exposure to four key risk factors, build capacity for chronic disease prevention and work towards health equity. Similarly, Tungasuvvingat Inuit released a report in 2005 from the National Urban Inuit One Voice Workshop with 26 recommendations aimed at improving the health and wellbeing of urban Inuit.

View or download a full copy of Cancer Risk Factors and Screening Among Inuit in Ontario and Other Canadian Regions on the Cancer Care Ontario website.

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