Cancer Screening and Early Detection

Cancer screening is for healthy people who do not have any symptoms of illness. Screening tests allow health care providers to find cancer before the patient experiences signs or symptoms.  

It is important for individuals and health care providers to be able to recognize possible warnings of cancer and act quickly. Finding cancer early, especially before the appearance of any signs or symptoms, improves the likelihood of successful treatment and can save your life. Early signs of cancer include lumps, sores that do not heal, unusual bleeding, and persistent indigestion. For more information about signs and symptoms of cancer, please see “What are the signs and symptoms?” under the “What is cancer?” tab. 

In the NWT, there are screening guidelines and programs for three cancers:  

  1. Breast cancer screening uses a mammogram; 

  2. Cervical cancer screening uses a Papanicolaou test, also called the Pap test; and  

  3. Colorectal cancer can be screened for using a fecal immunochemical test (FIT) among people who are considered to have an average risk of cancer. 

NWT residents have lower participation rates in routine cancer screening programs than other Canadians. In 2011 and 2012, 55% of eligible women had a mammogram; 53% of eligible women had a Pap test; and only 20% of eligible men and women had a screening test for colorectal cancer. 

If you or a family member has already had cancer, or you are experiencing any unusual signs or symptoms, discuss your options for cancer screening with your health care provider. You could be eligible for different screening tests, or screening at an earlier age. 

Breast cancer screening 

Breast cancer screening is recommended every two years for women aged 50-74. At age 40-49 it is recommended that women speak with their health care provider about the benefits and harms of mammography. If you or a family member has already had cancer, or you are experiencing any unusual signs or symptoms, discuss your options for cancer screening with your health care provider. You could be eligible for different screening tests, or screening at an earlier age.  

Screening for breast cancer usually consists of a visual and physical inspection and a mammogram. A mammogram is an x-ray exam that reveals any lumps or abnormal tissue in the breast. Mammography machines are currently located in Yellowknife, Inuvik, and Hay River. If you live in another community, your health care provider will give you a referral to access these services. Medical Travel will cover your travel costs.  

For more information on breast cancer screening in the NWT, click here

To see the NWT breast cancer screening clinical practice guidelines, click here

Cervical cancer screening 

Cervical cancer can be detected by a Papanicolaou test, also called the Pap test. The Pap test can be done at any health center or medical clinic. A Pap test involves inserting a swab into the woman’s vagina to gently scrape cells from her cervix. The cells are then analyzed to identify any abnormalities. Young women should start to get Pap tests every year starting at age 21, or 3 years after becoming sexually active, whichever comes first.  After three consecutive normal Pap tests, the frequency can be reduced to every two years. Discuss with your health care provider your eligibility for cervical cancer screening. 

For more information on cervical cancer screening and NWT clinical practice guidelines, click here

Colorectal cancer screening 

The fecal immunochemical test (FIT) is a simple test used to screen for colorectal cancer among people with an average risk of developing cancer. FIT kits are available at all health centers and health cabins for patients to take home. Colorectal cancer screening is recommended every 1 to 2 years for men and women aged 50-74 years. If colorectal cancer is part of your family history, you are considered to have a higher risk of developing cancer and should begin screening at age 40, or ten years earlier than the youngest age when colorectal cancer was diagnosed in the family, whichever comes first. In this case, the screening tool is the colonoscopy, an exam that finds abnormalities in the colon.  

If you or a family member has already had cancer, or you are experiencing any unusual signs or symptoms, discuss your options for cancer screening with your health care provider. You could be eligible for different screening tests, or screening at an earlier age. 

The FIT kit comes with a test card, long brush, waste bag, and mailing envelope. There are no diet requirements to complete the FIT. Always follow the instructions provided with the kit to collect your samples. 

For more information on colorectal cancer screening and the NWT clinical practice guidelines, please click here

For information about the FIT screening test, please watch this video