A new report has found that cancer is the leading cause of death in the Yukon.
The report, titled Cancer Mortality Trends 1999-2013, was released Tuesday by the Yukon government. It’s the first comprehensive analysis of cancer mortality in the territory.
It details the most common types of cancer, regional cancer trends and factors that influence cancer mortality. It also makes recommendations to better address the disease in the Yukon.
“It’s not with a joyous heart that I get to report on cancer mortality,” Dr. Catherine Elliott, the Yukon’s deputy chief medical officer of health, told a press
“Cancer has touched many of us either personally, or our families or friends have been touched by cancer, and it has a very heavy bearing in terms of the cost on
all of us personally, spiritually, emotionally, on our societies, and our communities,” Elliott said.
“It’s something that I’m hoping that this report will help us collaborate better together to prevent.”
While cancer rates are declining in the territory, Elliott said, the Yukon does have higher than national rates. As well, the number of cancer deaths is expected to
rise as the population grows and ages.
Between 2008 and 2012, the number of cancer deaths in the Yukon was 21 per cent higher than expected compared to national rates.
According to the report, one in three deaths in the Yukon is related to cancer. On average there have been 62 cancer-related deaths in the territory every year
As well, lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer death in the territory, accounting for about a third of deaths.
And the two major risk factors for lung cancer are tobacco smoke and exposure to radon.
While smoking rates appear to be declining in the Yukon, explained Elliott, they are still much higher than the national average.
And according to Health Canada, the territory also has one of the largest proportions of homes testing above the recommended guidelines for radon.
Other leading cancers causing death in the Yukon are colorectal, breast, prostate, and stomach cancers.
While the first four are comparable nationally, Elliott said, stomach cancer is a uniquely important cause of cancer mortality in the Yukon.
She said this needs to be looked into more. It could be related to Helicobacter Pylori, a bacterium that infects the stomach and is related to inflammation and
some stomach cancers.
Helicobacter Pylori rates have been tested in some northern communities across Canada and in Alaska, and have been found to be higher in those regions.
But the news isn’t all bad. Elliott explained that about half of cancers are preventable, and smoking is the single major preventable cause of cancer.
“We need not be resigned to the status quo; we can do something about cancer mortality, we can improve it here in the Yukon,” she said.
Ways to reduce cancer deaths include a healthy diet, exercise, limiting alcohol consumption, treating infectious causes of cancer such as HPV, reducing
exposure to occupational and environmental carcinogens, and early detection with cancer screening.
“Cancer mortality can be improved by concerted, collaborative, co-ordinated screening programs, early detection and treatment,” said Elliott.
The data, collected over 15 years, were also divided by gender and regions. The report states that 55 per cent of all cancer deaths occur in men in the Yukon.
And a significant difference was noted in cancer mortality rates in females but not in males. Cancer mortality among Yukon women was 25 per cent higher than
expected from 2008 to 2012 relative to national rates.
The report also found that rural communities have higher cancer mortality rates.
Between 2009 and 2013, Whitehorse’s mortality rate was 180.8 compared to a rate of 239.6 in the communities.
Elliott explained this is due to higher risk factors in rural communities. Those include higher rates of smoking, less healthy lifestyles, and higher occupational and environmental exposures to cancer-causing agents.
As well, rates of screening and access to treatment tend to be lower in rural areas.
“Barriers to treatment such as travel, cost, separation from family and loved ones, can make treatment a lot harder for people in rural areas,” she noted.
“Success in Yukon will mean collaboration. Cancer prevention, screening, care, and end-of-life care involves numerous agencies,” said Elliott.
Currently the Department of Health and Social Services has a number of programs and initiatives aimed at reducing cancer rates and mortality in the Yukon.
These include the recent ColonCheck program, smoking prevention, and annual radon awareness campaigns.
Elliott also noted that the Council of Yukon First Nations has been doing a lot of work to promote effective cancer care.
Health and Social Services Minister Pauline Frost released a statement on the report, saying, “I would like to thank the dedicated team of professionals who
worked so hard on this important project, which will do much to inform our cancer control efforts and to improve cancer outcomes across the territory.
“As the report recommends, we must move forward with a co-ordinated approach that includes close collaboration between the Government of Yukon and Yukon First Nations.”