Newcomers to Canada have better cancer survival rates than non-immigrants. Here’s why

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Do Canadian-born cancer patients fare better than recent newcomers to the country? That’s what Toronto doctors guessed, but their research proved them wrong.

Recent immigrants to Canada are 14 per cent less likely to die of their cancer than non-immigrants, according to a new study published Monday out of Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre.

“We thought we would find that immigrants to Canada had worse outcomes when they got diagnosed with cancer. We thought immigrants to Canada would have a higher risk of dying than Canadian-born people diagnosed with cancer,” study co-author, Dr. Matthew Cheung, said.

Instead, they found the “exact opposite.”

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The Canadian doctors say they wanted to make sure that vulnerable populations, such as immigrants, are getting access to care. Cheung and his study co-author, Dr. Simron Singh, say they’re also both children of immigrants – from India, Hong Kong and China.

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Anecdotally, the pair also sees patients who immigrate to Canada and have trouble navigating the health-care system. In the U.S., this is an issue that leads to poorer outcomes when it comes to cancer – immigrants end up dying sooner after diagnosis.

“We wondered if that would be the same here,” Cheung said.

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For their study, they looked at 11,485 cancer cases diagnosed from 2000 to 2012 in recent immigrants and compared their outcomes to 17,844 cancer cases in non-recent immigrants (people who have been in the country for about 11 to 25 years) and 416,118 non-immigrants.

Turns out, cancer-specific deaths were lowest in recent immigrants.

The conclusion of the study calls it a “healthy immigrant effect.” Other research suggests it even applies to heart health, at least in Ontario.

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“This benefit seems to diminish over time, as the survival of immigrants from common cancers potentially converges with the Canadian norm,” the study reads.

The researchers are calling their unexpected findings a good news story. For starters, social factors, such as poverty and language barriers play a role in accessing health care. Even with these barriers, newcomers to Canada still had good outcomes in the face of the cancer.

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“It was actually a really happy moment. I felt really proud of the Canadian health-care system. To me, this study shows that the access to quality health care is available for immigrants, contrary to what the studies in the United States showed,” Singh said.

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Their next steps are to look at how other factors, like genes or decision-making, play a part.

Read the full findings published in the Journal of Oncology Practice.

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