A new pilot project in northwest B.C. aims to empower women and break barriers to accessing heath care.
The CervixCheck program offers Métis women in the Prince Rupert, Terrace and Smithers areas the ability to screen for cervical cancer at home by registering online and receiving a testing kit in the mail.
“There’s incredible barriers to accessing that care so this is a really exciting project in that it really puts control over screening into the hands of Métis women,” said Dr. Sheona Mitchell-Foster, project lead and obstetrician-gynecologist.
“This project is part of a much larger program that is looking at how we can actually eliminate cervical cancer and using British Columbia as a model for that.”
Mitchell-Foster, who is also an assistant professor with the University of British Columbia’s Northern Medical Program, said that Indigenous women have over a 90 per cent higher chance of having invasive cervical cancer than non-indigenous women. She said that there is less data for Métis women on cervical cancer specifically, but in general Métis women have less access to health care and reproductive screening.
The project has been years in the making and is a partnership between the British Columbia Centre for Disease Control, BC Cancer, Public Health Services Authority and Métis Nation British Columbia (MNBC). The kits were developed by Eve Medical. Eligible Métis women can register online and receive a testing kit in the mail. After screening themselves at home, they can then send the kit back and they will be contacted by their health care provider in the event of a positive test. Patients can view negative test results online.
Mitchell-Foster said the idea behind the project is to decrease the barriers that exist with a Pap smear, which is currently the standard procedure used to screen for cervical cancer. Pap smears involve a pelvic exam in a medical clinic by a care provider.
“There’s lots of barriers to that, so Métis women, because of our dark legacy of colonization, there’s barriers just in accessing any kind of medical care as ultimately our medical system is a colonial system,” she said.
Because Pap smears are such an invasive exam, they may trigger past trauma or women may not be comfortable with that type of test. There are also geographic barriers in some areas of the Northwest, like a lack of health care providers or difficulty finding child care or traveling to be screened for cervical cancer.
The COVID-19 pandemic is another barrier to screening that is addressed by the CervixCheck project.
“We’ve seen a massive drop in any kind of preventative screening but specifically cervical cancer so as of now there’s an extra fifty to sixty thousand women in B.C. who are now overdue for a Pap screening,” said Mitchell-Foster.
“It’s certainly opened our eyes to ways that we need to shift our lens within health care to more innovative ways and in much more settings be able to offer this type of intervention.”
Cervical cancer is caused by the human papillomavirus, or HPV. Mitchell-Foster said the kits provided by the pilot project test for HPV DNA, making it a more sensitive and effective test than a traditional Pap smear because it detects cells in a pre-cancer stage.
“That’s really our goal, we want to be able to treat this in the pre-cancer stage before it actually turns into cancer,” she said.
Right now, the program is only open to Métis women between the ages of 30 to 65 in northwest B.C. who have not had a cervical screening in the past three years. The Smithers and Terrace areas of the project started in Oct. 2020, with Prince Rupert set to begin this month. Depending on uptake, there are plans to expand CervixCheck to other areas of the province to reach as many Métis women as possible.
“We are wanting to reach Métis women who are both citizens and who self identify, so in B.C. we have over 20,000 citizens and then of that we have over 90,000 who self identify in B.C.,” said Katina Pollard, northern regional health coordinator with MNBC and CervixCheck project assistant.
“My concern is that we may be reaching our citizens but not necessarily women who self-identify who are not connected back to the nation.”
Pollard said feedback from women has been positive and there are options to pick up a testing kit in Terrace, Smithers and Prince Rupert.
“In our talks with the women, domestic violence has been brought up, the fact that the kits being mailed to their home might cause questions for a spouse, so having a pickup option has been hugely beneficial for women.”
CervixCheck tests can be picked up at the Kermode Friendship Centre in Terrace, where staff have been trained to help women register and mail the kit back. Tests can also be sent to the health unit in Smithers and Prince Rupert.
For more information about CervixCheck, people can visit www.cervixcheck.ca, call 604-857-2424 ext. 5635, or email Katina Pollard at firstname.lastname@example.org.