Frequently Asked Questions



How many types of cancers are there?

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.

What are the most important causes or risk factors of cancer?

The number one cause of cancer is smoking. The second most important cause of cancer is eating too many unhealthy foods.

Is cancer contagious?

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.

More people are getting cancer. Why?

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.

Long ago we didn’t hear about cancer. Why do we have cancer now?

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.

Why do some families have more cancer?

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.

What are the most prevalent types of cancer in the NWT?

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.

Is it more deadly the second time a person gets cancer?

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.

How does the immune system help to protect us from cancer?

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.

Why do people get sick when they get radiation treatments for their cancer?

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.

What is the cure rate for colorectal cancer?

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.

Are we getting close to a cure for lung cancer?

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.

I hear H. pylori can sometimes cause cancer. How do you get H. pylori?

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.


How do you know which screening tests you need?

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.

Where can we get the FIT (fecal immunochemical test), the screening test for colorectal cancer?

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.

What should I do if I do not hear back about my screening results?

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.

Why do we have specific screening ages for cancer screening?

The NWT screening guidelines tell you what screening tests should be used to look for colorectal, cervical, and breast cancers, depending on your age and personal or family history of cancer. They are based on current scientific evidence and updated regularly to ensure the benefits of screening outweigh the risks. Cancer screening at an earlier age than recommended is not always helpful, and may actually cause harm.

Advancing age is the most important risk factor for cancer overall. This is why NWT screening guidelines for breast and colon cancer starts at older ages where the chance of developing cancer is much greater.

In addition to living a healthy lifestyle and getting screened when appropriate, one of the most important things you can do to detect cancer at any age is to be aware of any unusual changes in your body and to discuss your concerns with your health care provider.

For more information about cancer screening, click here or see your health care provider.


What help is there for people who want to quit smoking?

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.

What kinds of cancers does smoking cause?

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.

What are the risks of smoke from tanning animal hides?

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.

What are first-hand, second-hand, and third-hand smoke?

  • First-hand Smoke: the smoke directly inhaled by a smoker, usually through a filter on the end of the cigarette.
  • Second-hand Smoke: the smoke inhaled by others who are not smoking the cigarette.
    There are two types of second-hand smoke. The first is the smoke given off by the burning end of a cigarette, pipe or cigar. The other is the smoke that is breathed out by the smoker. Second-hand smoke is particularly dangerous to young children as their developing bodies are more sensitive to toxic chemicals.
  • Third-hand Smoke: this is the smoke and toxic chemicals that stick to your clothes, carpet, and furniture.
    These chemicals stay around a long time after the cigarette is out. This is what you smell when you walk into a room that smells like cigarette smoke. Babies and young children are at greater risk because they crawl on contaminated surfaces and put things in their mouths.

Is first-hand or second-hand smoking worse for your health?

Both first-hand and second-hand smoke are very dangerous because any amount of smoke can increase your risk of developing lung cancer and other diseases.  The important factors to consider when determining the harmful effects of inhaling smoke are the amount of exposure and the individual’s vulnerability (not everyone is affected by smoke the same way). There are 70 cancer-causing chemicals released in the air from second-hand smoke and Health Canada estimates that more than 800 non-smokers in Canada die from second-hand smoke each year.

All forms of smoke contain chemicals that cause cancer. Second-hand smoke alone contains 70 chemicals that cause cancer. Each year about 43,000 Canadian smokers die from smoking-related illnesses and about 800 non-smokers die from diseases related to second-hand smoke. For more information about second-hand smoke, visit here.


Do any foods cure cancer?

Many people are interested in the links between specific foods and cancer. New research is providing more information every day. At this time, there is no single food that causes or cures cancer. However, healthy eating can reduce the risk for certain types of cancer.

Does being overweight or obese increase cancer risk?

Yes. Being overweight or obese is linked with an increased risk of cancers of the breast (among women after menopause), colon and rectum, uterine, esophagus, kidney, and pancreas, andmost likely cancer of the gallbladder as well. It may also be linked with increased risk of cancers of the liver, cervix, and ovary, as well as non-Hodgkin lymphoma, multiple myeloma, and aggressive forms of prostate cancer.

There is limited research on whether losing weight reduces cancer risk but some research suggests that weight loss lowers the risk of breast cancer in women past menopause and possibly other cancers.

Healthy eating is one of many factors for keeping weight in a healthy range. This is important not only in possibly lowering cancer risk but also in reducing the risk of other chronic diseases such as heart disease and Type 2 diabetes.

Will eating less fat lower cancer risk?

There is no clear answer as to whether or not certain types of fat such as lard, olive oil, butter or margarine increase cancer risk. However, eating a lot of fatty foods may cause weight gain which then increases risk for cancer.

What is dietary fibre, and can it lower cancer risk?

Dietary fibre is found in plants. It is the part of the plant that humans cannot digest. Good sources of fibre are dried beans, vegetables, whole grains, and fruits. Fibre can be "soluble" (such as barley, oats and oat bran, split peas and beans) or "insoluble" (such as wheat bran, fruit peels and skins, nuts and seeds).

Some studies suggest that insoluble fibre and whole grains may be responsible for a small reduction in colorectal cancer risk. However, it is not clear whether it is the fibre, another component of high-fibre foods or how fibre helps maintain healthy bacteria in the colon which may responsible for the link with lowered cancer risk.

Should I avoid processed meats?

Some studies have linked eating large amounts of processed meat to increased risk of colorectal and stomach cancers. This link may be due in part to nitrites, which are added to many lunch meats, bologna, hams, and hot dogs to maintain color and to prevent bacterial growth. Eating processed meats and meats preserved using smoke or salt may promote cancer growth and should be reduced as much as possible.

Does cooking meat over a fire or frying affect cancer risk?

Research suggests that frying, broiling, or barbequing at very high temperatures causes chemicals to form on the charred or burned meat that might increase cancer risk. These chemicals can damage DNA and cause cancer in animals, but it is not clear how these chemicals or other substances in meat may contribute to the increased colorectal cancer risk seen in people who eat large amounts of meat. Boiling, baking, braising, steaming, poaching, stewing, and microwaving meats produce fewer of these chemicals.

What about traditional game, fish and birds?

Traditional foods are important for health and wellbeing. Not only do traditional foods provide nourishment but are valued from cultural and spiritual perspectives. Eating traditional game, fish and birds in appropriate amounts helps to maintain healthy weight, which in turn, reduces cancer risk.

Does salt in the diet increase cancer risk?

Salt-preserved foods such as salt fish and salt-preserved vegetables and pickles have been linked to stomach cancer. Experimental research has shown that salt damages the stomach lining and causes lesions, which, if left to develop, can become stomach cancer.  However, it is not known if total salt intake increases the risk for cancer.

Does sugar increase cancer risk?

Drinking sugary beverages and eating high sugar foods may indirectly increase cancer risk by contributing to weight gain. Limiting foods such as cakes, candy, cookies, and sweetened cereals, as well as pop, energy and sports drinks, iced teas and coffees and drinks made from powder can help keep weight in a healthy range.

Will eating vegetables and fruits lower cancer risk?

Research has shown that certain vegetables and fruits are protective against some cancers for some people. For example, there is considerable evidence to suggest that lycopene found in tomatoes is protective against prostate cancer.  However, it is not known which of the many substances found in vegetables and fruits are most likely to protect against other cancers. Therefore, eating different colorful vegetables and fruits, about 2-3 cups a day may lower cancer risk. Eat as great a variety of fruits and vegetables as possible, especially those locally harvested from trees, gardens and from the bush such as berries, salsify, rosehips, and other plants.  Any kind of vegetables and fruits is good, whether fresh, canned, dried, or frozen.

How much alcohol is safe?

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.

Will contaminated water cause cancer?

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

Do microwave ovens cause cancer?

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.

Can radiation in x-rays cause cancer?

The radiation from x-rays, using modern equipment and techniques, is quite tiny and not considered to be a significant risk factor.

Do light bulbs, cell phones or wireless internet cause cancer?

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.

Can rare metals cause cancer?

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

Is the sun a cause of cancer or is it the ozone layer?

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.