Cancer in the NWT

Cancer is the leading cause of death in the NWT and in the rest of Canada. Between 2001 and 2010, an average of 111 new cancer cases were diagnosed every year in the NWT and cancer accounted for approximately 25% of all deaths. Understandably, this creates concern in our communities.  

As NWT residents get older and live longer, we can expect to see more cancer. Also, the more people participate in cancer screening, the more cancer we will find. Detecting cancer early is a good thing because it means there is greater likelihood of cure with simpler treatments.  

Cancer incidence refers to the number of people who are diagnosed with cancer every year. When all cancer types are considered together, cancer incidence in the NWT is the same as in the rest of Canada. However, colorectal cancer rates are higher among men and women in the NWT than in the rest of the country. On the other hand, prostate cancer is not as common in the NWT as in the rest of Canada, but it is one of the more common cancers among NWT men along with colorectal and lung cancers. Breast, colorectal, and lung cancers are the most commonly diagnosed cancers among NWT women. 

Figure 1: New cancer cases by sex in the NWT (2001-2010)  

Lung, colorectal, breast, and prostate cancer are the most frequent causes of death from cancer among NWT residents. Cancer mortality refers to the number of deaths caused by cancer every year. Compared to other Canadian men, NWT men have significantly lower mortality from all cancers combined. Compared to other Canadian women, NWT women have similar cancer mortality. However, compared to other Canadian women, more NWT women die from colorectal and lung cancer.  

As well, a greater number of men die from colorectal cancer in the NWT than in the rest of Canada. On average, 45 people died from cancer every year between 2001 and 2010.  

In general, we are seeing fewer NWT residents die from cancer every year. For all cancer types combined, there are no significant differences in cancer incidence among Dene, Métis, Inuit, and non-Aboriginal people of the NWT.  

Cancer risk factors in the NWT 

Cigarette smoking is responsible for more than 85% of lung cancers across Canada and is either the direct cause or a contributing factor in many cancers such as colorectal, cervical, breast, and prostate cancers.  

In the NWT, 53% of small community residents smoke whereas 29% in regional centers and 23% in Yellowknife are smokers. As well, 51% of Aboriginal people smoke while 18% of non-Aboriginal people report being smokers. People living in Yellowknife are more successful quitting smoking (44%) than are residents of smaller communities (27%). 

Figure 2: Quit rates among those who have ever smoked (2002-2012)  

Alcohol is another substance associated with an increased risk of cancer, especially breast and digestive tract cancers. Yellowknife residents drink more frequently than in other NWT communities. However, the proportion of drinkers who drink heavily at least once a month is greater in small communities than in Yellowknife (55% versus 35%). Heavy drinking is defined as five or more alcoholic drinks in one sitting. Heavy drinking at least once a week is more common in regional centers than in Yellowknife (21% versus 12%). 

Figure 3: Usual Number of Drinks, 5+ Drinks (2002-2012)  


Diet can play an important role in protecting against cancer. The foods we eat can influence the risk of developing cancer. Approximately 30% of all cancers are linked with what we eat and drink. In the NWT, only 36.6% of people older than 15 years eat the five servings of fruits and vegetables per day that are recommended in the Canadian Food Guide. It is important to maintain a healthy, balanced diet. 

NWT Cancer Registry 

Since 1992, the Northwest Territories Cancer Registry provides us community-based information about cancer cases and specific tumours and the population.  

The NWT often relies on Alberta Health Services for laboratory diagnostic, medical referral, and other health-related assistance. Most cancer patients are diagnosed and/or receive treatment in Alberta.    Since 2007, the NWT Cancer Registry has collaborated with Alberta Health Services to improve NWT cancer data. The NWT Cancer Registry tracks individual cases and collects all relevant clinical data. This information was used to produce Cancer in the Northwest Territories 2001-2010