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Dismantling stigma and improving access to potentially life-saving screenings

“Many newcomers only deal with a health issue once there’s an actual problem. We’re trying to get ahead of that,” says Emily Kovacs, the winner of the Colorectal Cancer Early Detection Challenge.

Colorectal cancer is the fourth-most commonly diagnosed cancer, and the second leading cause of cancer-related deaths in Canada. Last year alone, it’s estimated more than 24,000 people living in Canada were diagnosed. But if caught early, colorectal cancer is highly treatable. The five-year survival rate is 67 percent and that number jumps to more than 90 percent for colorectal cancers caught in stage one.

Access to early screenings is not the same for everyone, however. New immigrants and members of underserved communities often face systemic healthcare obstacles, including language barriers and a lack of education about Canada’s healthcare system. Two-thirds of new immigrants say they haven’t been screened for colorectal cancer simply because they didn’t know the service existed.

These barriers inspired MaRS Discovery District and the Canadian Cancer Society to develop the Innovating for Everyone: The Colorectal Cancer Early Detection Challenge. This innovation challenge sought solutions that could help address the healthcare gaps preventing underserved populations from getting access to timely and potentially-life saving colorectal cancer screenings.

This week, it was announced that the grand prize winner is the Niagara Folk Arts Multicultural Centre, a community hub that helps newcomers navigate the hurdles of being an immigrant in Canada. At the helm is Emily Kovacs, a first-generation Canadian who is the executive director.

What does the Niagara Folk Arts Multicultural Centre do?

Any newcomer to Canada can walk through our doors and we provide them a holistic service. We have childcare services, housing and employment support, ESL programs, a robust mental health program, community kitchens — even a greenhouse and teaching gardens. All of this is offered free of charge.

What’s your solution to improving access to screening?

Our winning solution is based on a model we developed during COVID-19. We launched a peer-to-peer program to improve vaccine access for newcomers. More than 50 internationally-educated health professionals acted as ambassadors, educating people on why they need the vaccine and where to get it. Many people had reservations about getting immunized, but trusted representatives from their community steered them in the right direction. It was a success, and when we heard of the Colorectal Cancer Early Detection Challenge, we knew it would be a perfect fit to improve early access to colorectal cancer screenings.

What kind of obstacles are newcomers and people from marginalized communities facing when it comes to early colorectal cancer screenings?

There are a number of reasons newcomers and underserved communities face healthcare gaps, especially when it comes to colorectal cancer screenings. Sometimes people come from countries where invasive procedures and sensitive health issues are taboo, or preventative care and routine screenings aren’t commonly practiced. Socioeconomic factors also come into play. When you’re a newcomer, you’re focused on getting a job, paying the rent and putting food on the table. New immigrants worry about the cost of getting a screening, and I don’t mean paying for an actual test. Think about it — taking time off work, finding childcare, organizing transportation: it all adds up. Many newcomers only deal with a health issue once there’s an actual problem. We’re trying to get ahead of that. We’re venturing into territory that may be a little bit less comfortable for folks to talk about, but even if one person catches colorectal cancer early, then we’ve won.

Where did the program name “Everybody Eats, Everybody Poops” come from?

I wish I could say it’s an original idea. It’s based on the children’s storybook Everyone Poops. We wanted to approach this challenge from a child-like point of view and pique people’s curiosity. When people hear the name they have a funny facial expression or start laughing, and we’re looking for those kinds of reactions!

What does the Everybody Eats, Everybody Poops program entail?

We’re planning to use our community kitchen and space and transform it into a series of events where we’ll invite community members for a free dinner. On the menu will be a colorectal cancer–friendly meal developed by a nutritionist. It’s an opportunity to sit down, break bread and learn about healthy eating habits. We’ll also have a conversation about the importance of the prevention of colorectal cancer, and hand out screening kits for people to take home. And then, people will be matched with an ambassador, who will help them navigate further screening and medical visits, if needed.

What’s the biggest obstacle for organizations like yours when it comes to helping people get informed and get access to colorectal cancer screenings?

Our biggest obstacle isn’t just getting people screened for colorectal cancer, it’s improving the health literacy of newcomers, and teaching them how the healthcare system works in Canada. They come from countries where healthcare systems are completely different from ours. That means teaching newcomers about using a walk-in clinic for common illnesses rather than an emergency room, or in this case, why preventative measures are part of taking care of your overall health.

What does winning this challenge mean for your organization?

Winning this challenge acknowledges the amazing work of our team. Every last one of the employees we have are here because they truly care about the wellbeing of newcomers.

What’s your favourite part about leading this organization?

I always say that I will retire when I have nothing left to do. So that means I will never stop. My favourite part about being here is I get to undo some of the things that didn’t happen for me. I was 16 when I came to Canada. I was kind of lost; I didn’t really have a lot of direction. So, every time I see a kid who is roughly the age I was when I came here, it feels amazing to provide them access to programs that weren’t available to me. This job means opening doors and possibilities for other little kids who were just like me. That’s a good legacy to leave behind.

Learn more about the Niagara Folk Arts Multicultural Centre and the runner-up, Flemingdon Health Centre, in the Canadian Cancer Society and MaRS Innovating for Everyone: The Colorectal Cancer Early Detection Challenge.

Photo courtesy of Niagara Folk Arts Multicultural Centre

MaRS Discovery District
MaRS is the world's largest urban innovation hub in Toronto that supports startups in the health, cleantech, fintech, and enterprise sectors. When MaRS opened in 2005 this concept of urban innovation was an untested theory. Today, it’s reshaping cities around the world. MaRS has been at the forefront of a wave of change that extends from Melbourne to Amsterdam and runs through San Francisco, London, Medellín, Los Angeles, Paris and New York. These global cities are now striving to create what we have in Toronto: a dense innovation district that co-locates universities, startups, corporates and investors. In this increasingly competitive landscape, scale matters more than ever – the best talent is attracted to the brightest innovation hotspots.

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