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Sudbury, Ont., doctors’ animated videos encourage early cancer screening for Indigenous adults

A new animated video series out of norther Ontario aims to help inform Indigenous communities about the importance of cancer screening.

The videos, titled Conversations about Cancer, feature Sudbury-based family physician Dr. Erin Peltier, and are produced by Health Sciences North (HSN) and the Northeast Regional Cancer Program.

The series includes five videos that address what cancer is, and the importance of screening for breast, colorectal, cervical and lung cancers.

The idea began when Peltier became regional Indigenous cancer lead with the Northeast Regional Cancer Program in 2019. In her discussions with Indigenous communities and their health directors, Peltier and her team discovered that many people weren’t coming in for regular cancer screening. 

“Even within my own community [Wiikwemkoong Unceded Territory], I know people most likely had symptoms, but were afraid to come in for help,” Peltier said. 

“In terms of early screening, I think many people don’t really know what the screening entails,” she said. “Many people told me that they thought breast screening was painful, and maybe it was back before we had better technology, but they didn’t know that mammograms are actually really quick and not painful these days.”

The mistrust of medical procedures may be deep seeded for many Indigenous people, Peltier said.

“I think it just stems back to intergenerational trauma, not trusting the health system, the government, I think that has a lot to do with it.”

Dr. Erin Peltier is the regional Indigenous cancer lead with the Northeast Regional Cancer Program, and featured in the videos. (Health Sciences North)

The result, Peltier said, is many people only come in when their cancer is more advanced and treatments are less likely to work. 

“It’s devastating to see, not just about my own patients, but just seeing the stats throughout Ontario.” 

According to HSN, between 1991 and 2010 in Ontario, Indigenous patients had higher mortality rates for a number of cancers, including lung, colorectal, liver and kidney. Breast cancer is also more likely to be diagnosed at a later stage in Indigenous patients. 

“It’s pretty disheartening because we know screening works and we know if you come in early enough and detect early cancer, the chances of treatment working is way higher than when you come in the later stages,” Peltier said. 

The doctor said the videos will hopefully break down some of those barriers and help build trust between Indigenous communities and the health-care system.

Marnie Anderson, the Indigenous engagement liaison for the Northeast Cancer Center, helped ensure the videos were sending the most accessible message possible to viewers. That includes having the scripts translated into Cree, Ojibway and French. (Submitted by Marnie Anderson)

Marni Anderson, the Indigenous engagement liaison for the Northeast Cancer Centre, said she helped ensure the videos were sending the most accessible message possible to viewers.

That includes having the scripts translated into Cree, Ojibway and French.

“For us it was to try and see how can we make information relevant to First Nations, Inuit and M├ętis in our area, and how do we make sure that we try and increase the screening rate?” Anderson said. 

“Because right now, due to the pandemic across all of Ontario, there’s been a big struggle to push screening so that there’s not a tsunami of undiagnosed cancers to come, because that’s what the numbers are looking at.”

So far, Anderson said, the feedback on the videos has been positive.

“When we were talking to a health centre secretary on a First Nation, she said, ‘These are going to be really great because they’re going to be able to promote screening in a way that removes the fear.’

“And I think that’s what the animation really does, is it removes a lot of the fear that we might have or questions that we might have about the process around screening,” Anderson said. “Then it also provides information so we can follow up and ask questions.”

This project is part of HSN’s strategic plan commitments to be socially accountable and more patient and family focused, the hospital said in a news release.

“HSN is committed to being an active participant in bringing health and social service partners together with Indigenous communities,” Natalie Aubin, regional vice-president for cancer care and vice-president for social accountability at HSN, said in the statement.

“It’s all about improving health outcomes for Indigenous patients and their families.”

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