How Dangerous is Cancer for Black Canadian Women?

Due to a lack of healthcare data, we just don't know. One researcher is calling for systemic change to help better serve a diverse nation.


Black women face far worse outcomes from cancer than other demographics do, recent research from the United States and United Kingdom suggests. In Canada, however, the lack of data on race in a medical context is leaving Black Canadian women with unanswered questions about just how severe their risks may be.

To learn more about this gap in Canada’s medical knowledge, Onye Nnorom — the Black Health Theme Lead at the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Medicine — recently led a scoping review of studies on cervical and breast cancer in Black Canadian women. Of the countless papers she looked at that are published every year on cancer, however, only 23 over the past 15 years focused on the adverse risks faced by Black Canadian women.

The review was published in the Journal of Health Care for the Poor and Underserved.

Worrisome lack of race-based healthcare data in Canada

Cancer is the leading cause of death for Canadians, yet despite growing evidence from other countries that the disease disproportionately affects Black women, the Canadian Cancer Society does not collect data related to race or ethnicity.

But obtaining Canadian data is crucial because there are many reasons why they may be distinct.

Factors that may be at play in US-based studies — the lack of basic universal healthcare, for example — won’t apply in a Canadian context. The demographics of Black Canadian populations also differ significantly from those in the US or UK, meaning that Canadian-specific studies are necessary to properly quantify specific risks.

Also worrisome is the fact that many Canadian studies have shown lower cancer screening rates for immigrants than for the Canadian-born population. A large percentage of the Black Canadian population is foreign-born, which means that Black Canadian women may face additional risks simply because they’re unable to access preventative screening.

“In Canada, our population is more diverse than ever,” said Nnorom. “Sadly, the way we collect healthcare data doesn’t reflect that reality. Our current practices are hurting Black Canadians because there is little or no healthcare data or research that is specific to race or ethnicity.”

The main outcome of Nnorom’s review was to demonstrate the severe lack of research into cancer among Black Canadian women. Existing literature is scarce and focuses mainly on cervical cancer screening rates among Black Canadian women, leaving an alarming gap for this and many other relevant cancers.

Additionally, the few studies that do exist suggest a worrisome lack of cancer screening in various communities. Women who had immigrated from sub-Saharan Africa, for example, were more likely than other demographics to be under-screened for cervical cancer. The authors suggest that low socioeconomic status was likely a barrier to accessing cancer screening, but recommend further research to better understand this discrepancy in screening rates.

Overall, Nnorom’s review highlights the importance of collecting race- and ethnicity-based data in the Canadian healthcare system.

“It’s time for our system to change,” said Nnorom, “and for Canadian healthcare data and research to start reflecting the needs of the people who live here.”

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Emily Deibert is a PhD student in the Department of Astronomy & Astrophysics at the University of Toronto with a passion for science outreach and communication. She earned her HBSc (Astronomy, English, and Mathematics) at the University of Toronto. She is excited about turning scientific research into stories and sharing these stories with the public.