NWT ‘needs more screening’ to identify colorectal cancer

The territory needs to improve screening of residents for colorectal cancer to help early detection of the disease, says Inuvin Twin Lakes MLA Lesa Semmler.

Quoting health authority data, Semmler said the Beaufort Delta has the highest number of residents with colorectal cancer but the lowest take-up of testing.

“I can honestly say most people in my region have been affected by this disease,” she said.


“We need to make sure our residents are aware of the screening criteria and ensure we see our screening rates rise so we can prevent any further deaths for our loved ones.”

According to the NWT health authority, men and women aged 50 to 74 who are considered to be at an average risk should be screened every one or two years.

Those at increased risk should begin screening at age 40, or 10 years earlier than the youngest age at which the disease has been diagnosed in their family.

In the NWT, colorectal cancer is the second leading cause of cancer death. Cure rates are almost 90 percent when detected early but drop to 12 percent if detected in its later stages, according to the 2019-2020 NWT Health and Social Services annual report.

From October 2019 to February 2020, community engagement program kits were sent to each community to raise awareness about colorectal, cervical and breast cancer.


Need to encourage more screening

According to its annual report, the territory is nowhere near the national minimum target for colorectal cancer screening.  

The national screening goal for colorectal cancer was 60 percent for the period studied. The NWT only screened 21.9 percent of its targeted population.

Health minister Julie Green said a pilot project launched in the Beaufort Delta a year ago did improve participation.

The project saw self-screening kits mailed to people while nurses followed up with information and assistance.  


Green said more kits were sent in November 2020.

A total of 1,157 kits were distributed. Screening in smaller Beaufort Delta communities beyond Inuvik rose from seven percent to 15.6 percent.

Including Inuvik, the figure went from 6.7 percent to 11.8 percent.

People who receive a positive result from their self-screening test must currently wait an average of 88 days for a colonoscopy, a delay Green says the territory is working to shorten.

“We are now working on a pilot project that will help us identify where we can make improvements to reduce the amount of time that it takes to go from a positive test to a colonoscopy,” the minister said.

Travel restrictions not impeding services

Semmler said she worried about potential delays the pandemic had introduced to the process of diagnosing cancer and treating patients, such as travel restrictions potentially disrupting access to the Alberta Cross Cancer Institute.

Green said services remain as available as they were pre-pandemic and, though some residents have been hesitant to leave the territory for medical care, there was regular communication between the NWT and the Alberta facility.

In addition, the minister said, two specialist cancer clinics are offered virtually from Yellowknife’s Stanton Territorial Hospital.