Frequently Asked Questions


Question: How many types of cancers are there?
Answer: There are over 200 types of cancers. Cancer can originate from any kind of cell that makes up our body and it can be found in any part of the body.

Question: What are the most important causes or risk factors of cancer?
Answer: The number one cause of cancer is smoking. The second most important cause of cancer is eating too many unhealthy foods.

Question: Is cancer contagious?
Answer: Cancer is not contagious. Cancer originates in an individual’s own cells and you cannot pass it to someone else. There are a few contagious viruses or bacteria that can lead to cancers. For example, the Human papillomavirus (HPV) may lead to cervical cancer, the Epstein-Barr virus can cause a form of lymphoma, and Helicobacter pylori, a bacterium that infects the lining of the stomach, is associated with stomach-related cancers.

Question: More people are getting cancer. Why?
Answer: Age is one factor: people are living longer, and their risk of cancer increases as they get older. Lifestyle is another big factor. Other diseases like diabetes will make cancer cells grow faster. Also, screening tests are getting better. Cancers that we may not have been able to detect in the past can be found at earlier stages today. We are trying to focus on how to lower our cancer rate, and we know that we will never eliminate cancer, but by helping people change their lifestyles and participate more regularly in screening programs, we can reduce the incidence and mortality rates of most cancers.

Question: Long ago we didn’t hear about cancer. Why do we have cancer now?
Answer: Cancer is not a new disease. There is evidence of cancer in Inuit bodies found in the permafrost and also in Egyptian mummies. Cancer has been around for centuries. It is important to stress that cancer can take decades to grow. In other words, what we were doing 20 years ago may be contributing to the cancers of today. For example, skin cancer diagnosed in a 50 year-old individual may have started after a bad sunburn when that person was a teenager. Smoking is still one of the most important risk factors for cancer--not just cancer in the lungs, but in many other parts of the body, because the harmful chemicals in cigarette smoke do not stay in the lungs but travel to other organs as well. For example, rates of breast, stomach, bladder, and kidney cancers are all higher among smokers.

Question: Why do some families have more cancer?
Answer: Some cancers have a hereditary (genetic) aspect, meaning that there is something in the genes of certain families that make them more prone to develop certain cancers. Families also share a similar living environment, eat similar foods, and may share similar lifestyles.

Question: What are the most prevalent types of cancer in the NWT?
Answer: Over 50% of cancers diagnosed in NWT are one of the ‘top four’: colorectal, breast, lung, and prostate cancers. Other cancers in the NWT include non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma and oral, stomach, cervical, brain, and thyroid cancers.

Question: Is it more deadly the second time a person gets cancer?
Answer: Cancer cells can travel through the blood and show up in other parts of the body.

When the cancer has spread, it is harder to treat. The signs and symptoms can disappear for a while, but eventually the cancer returns and is then more likely to cause death. However, it is also possible that someone who had cancer before may develop a different type of cancer later. In that case, the chance of survival is not changed and will depend primarily on the stage at which this new cancer is diagnosed.

Question: How does the immune system help to protect us from cancer?
Answer: The immune system plays a big part in repairing damage to our cells. Stress, depression, and lack of exercise or poor diet all affect the immune system and can impair its ability to repair damage to our cells.

Question: Why do people get sick when they get radiation treatments for their cancer?
Answer: Radiation treatment is very hard on the body. Radiation may also kill some good cells because it targets all cells, whether or not they are cancerous or normal.

Question: What is the cure rate for colorectal cancer?
Answer: If colorectal cancer is detected early, the cure rate can be as high as 90 percent. Screening is really important! Everyone over the age of 50 should be screened annually.

Question: Are we getting close to a cure for lung cancer?
Answer: There has been a lot of research into lung cancer, but these efforts are still in the research stage. Some early stage lung cancers are curable through surgery, but most lung cancer can only be slowed down through chemotherapy and other treatments that allow the patient to live longer. Fortunately, lung cancer is very preventable. Tobacco smoking accounts for up to 85% of all cases of lung cancer, not only in the NWT but all around the world.

Question: I hear H. pylori can sometimes cause cancer. How do you get H. pylori?
Answer: Helicobacter pylori bacteria are passed from person to person, usually because of poor hygiene. Good dental hygiene is important to prevent infection or re-infection. Most people with H. pylori infection acquired the bacteria when they were small children.


Question: How do you know which screening tests you need?
Answer: In the NWT, we have screening tests for colorectal, cervical, and breast cancers. Talk to your health care provider about the screening tests that are right for you. Screening tests can help to detect cancer before you start to feel sick, and it is important to listen to your body. Traditional medicines may also help to protect your body from illness.

Question: Where can we get the FIT (fecal immunochemical test), the screening test for colorectal cancer?
Answer: FIT kits are available at all health centers and health cabins. These tests can be taken home and then returned to the health center or cabin with your sample. Everyone over the age of 50 should participate in this screening program if they have an average risk of developing cancer. High risk individuals would need a colonoscopy. Talk to your health care provider about your risk and what screening option is most suitable.

Question: What should I do if I do not hear back about my screening results?
Answer: Everyone should get their cancer screening results, whether the result is positive or negative. Do not be afraid to call or visit your health care provider to ask about your results.


Question: What help is there for people who want to quit smoking?
Answer: Nicotine is one of the hardest drug addictions to kick. We have good medications to help you quit smoking, and you can speak to your health care provider about what options may work best for you. The NWT Quitline (1-866-286-5099) provides confidential help for people who wish to quit smoking. For information about the NWT Quitline, please click here.

Question: What kinds of cancers does smoking cause?
Answer: Smoking does not simply affect the lungs, it causes harm to every part of the body. In this way, smoking increases your risk of developing all kinds of cancer. The most common is lung cancer but smoking also causes cancer of the bladder, breast, and liver. Smoking also heavily contributes to the development of other chronic diseases such as diabetes, arthritis, gum disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and chronic bronchitis.

Question: What are the risks of smoke from tanning animal hides?
Answer: The inhalation of any kind of smoke is damaging, whether it is smoke from cigarettes, marijuana, or wood fires. It is also important to ensure good air quality inside your home and taking breaks outside in the fresh air. Contributors to bad air quality in the home are frying foods, wood smoke from older wood burning stoves, and smoking cigarettes or marijuana indoors.


Question: Is there a relationship between sugar and cancer?
Answer: Sugar itself does not affect cancer. However, some research shows that there may be a link between diabetes and cancer. A person with diabetes cannot properly use the sugar they eat. Eating a healthful diet, maintaining an appropriate weight, and regular physical activity will help reduce the risk of both diabetes and cancer.

Question: Does deep-frying foods lead to cancer?
Answer: Frying foods at a high temperature causes the formation of some carcinogens in food. This does not mean, however, that if you eat fried foods in moderation you are guaranteed to get cancer. Moderation is the key.

Question: Can cooking on a gas barbecue cause cancer?
Answer: Anything smoked or burned will increase your cancer risk slightly. It is best to eat smoked or burned foods in moderation.

Question: Do microwave ovens cause cancer?
Answer: Although microwave ovens use radiation to heat food and beverages, as long as the microwave components and protective barriers are not damaged and in good working order, there is no risk to your health.

Question: What about using lard for bannock and for frying meat?
Answer: Lard may promote cholesterol build-up, which is not good for your heart. However, you may still enjoy this once in a while. Deep frying should not be the regular way to cook. Drying, boiling, or roasting your meat is much better.

Question: Does junk food cause cancer?
Answer: Junk foods are probably not a cause of cancer, but these foods do not have the good nutrition your body needs to protect against or help your body fight cancer

Question: Are there benefits of a traditional indigenous diet?
Answer: The benefits of a traditional diet come not only from eating fish and the meat of an animal, but also the organs, fat, bone marrow, which are rich in nutrition. We believe that traditional diets help to protect people from cancer by promoting cultural, physical, spiritual, and community health. For people who do not eat in a traditional way, they must eat vegetables and fruits to make up for what is missing, as these also contain many essential vitamins and minerals.

Question: Are berries healthy foods, and can they protect people from cancer?
Answer: Berries contain high levels of protective ingredients that can repair damaged cells and protect against cancer. They are also known to decrease the risk of heart disease, diabetes, and other chronic diseases. Dark berries are the healthiest.

Question: How much alcohol is safe?
Answer: Research indicates that it is probably safe for non-pregnant women to have up to one drink per day, and for men to have up to two drinks. After that, the risks associated with cancer start to go up. Binge drinking–that is, four to five drinks at one time, depending on whether you are female or male–is unhealthy. Also, because alcohol fills you up, people who drink a lot usually do not eat well. The cancer risk is also increased because of a poor diet.

Question: Will contaminated water cause cancer?
Answer: In the NWT we test our drinking water on a very regular basis to ensure that it is safe. While some contaminants show up in the water in parts per billion, the chemicals in cigarettes are in parts per hundred. Cigarette smoking is a greater risk to health.

Other risk factors

Question: Can radiation in x-rays cause cancer?
Answer: The radiation from x-rays, using modern equipment and techniques, is quite tiny and not considered to be a significant risk factor.

Question: Do light bulbs, cell phones or wireless internet cause cancer?
Answer: Research has deemed the risk associated with these items as negligible, or so small that they are not considered to threaten the health of people.

Question: Can rare metals cause cancer?
Answer: Rare metals have not been known to be a significant cause of cancer, but they can cause neurological diseases. One example is mercury.

Question: Is the sun a cause of cancer or is it the ozone layer?
Answer: The sun gives off ultraviolet light (UV) rays that can cause cancer. If the ozone layer thins out or has holes in it, the UV rays can cause more harm as the ozone layer is a protective barrier against UV rays.