Dr. Peter Brett spends all day, every day treating cancer patients. At the Commonwealth Healthcare Corporation (CHCC) Oncology Center, he has stayed very busy with this work, despite the small community of 50,000+ residents. The Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI) has a surprisingly high number of cancer cases per capita. And unfortunately for Dr. Brett and his team, many patients don’t seek care until they have reached the late stages of their cancer.
“We can still treat people [with stage three or stage four cancer], but the chance of curing that is much lower [and] the chance of a good long-term outcome is much lower,” Dr. Pete Brett has said.
In addition to the challenge of patients waiting for a late diagnosis, the Oncology Center team also has to contend with a mostly low-income population that does not have health insurance. Dr. Peter Brett has worked hard to coordinate with pharmaceutical foundations that can provide discounted or free drugs to patients, allowing the Oncology Center to remain profitable and sustainable long-term.
Bringing the majority of cancer care home to the CNMI has already alleviated the financial burdens of traveling to see an oncology team, but Dr. Pete Brett knew he could do more to help the people of Saipan, Rota, and Tinian. He worked with the CHCC to develop the CARES program, which launched in May of 2022.
CARES stands for Cancer and Associated Risks Early Screening, and the program is free of charge to all CNMI residents. CARES provides cancer prevention counseling, vaccines, screening advice, testing, and follow-up sessions for everyone over the age of 18 who would like to participate.
“If cancer is detected early on…it is easier to treat and is more likely to have a better outcome compared to stage three or stage four cancer where it is spreading all over the body,” Dr. Peter Brett said. “When it is possible to cure our patient’s cancer, we will put forth every effort to maximize the chance of cure.”
When a participant contacts the CARES staff, they will answer questions that allow providers to determine what tests are appropriate for cancer screening. Tests and procedures that may be recommended are mammograms, pap smears, colonoscopies, FIT tests, CT scans, and oral screenings. Biopsies can be performed on any abnormalities. For those with a family history of cancer, genetic testing can be performed via an oral swab that is sent off-island for additional testing.
All test results are typically returned within 3-4 weeks, at which time they are relayed to the patient at a follow-up appointment. The staff at the Oncology Center can then refer patients as needed, and follow up to ensure continuity of care.
Dr. Peter Brett and the CARES Program
Dr. Pete Brett hopes that CNMI residents take full advantage of the CARES program, allowing him to cure more patients rather than simply provide temporary comforting care. He and the CHCC are so dedicated to ensuring the program is embraced by the community that CARES offers free transportation to and from screenings.
Participating in CARES is as simple as calling 670-234-8950 and asking for a free cancer screening. If you have health insurance, they will be billed, but if you do not, all testing costs are covered by the CHCC.
If you are diagnosed with cancer, Dr. Peter Brett and his team will work to create your treatment plan, which on-island can include chemotherapy, immunotherapy, targeted cancer treatment medicines, and simple surgeries. If you require radiation treatment or complex surgery, the Oncology team will refer you to a qualified doctor off-island.
The most important thing is that you get screened for cancers early, and maintain a healthy lifestyle that can help to prevent future cancers from developing. Detecting cancer in stage 1 or 2 can increase the effectiveness of treatment by 90-95%, which can mean the difference between life and death.
You can reach the staff of the CHCC Oncology Center from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday to Friday. Dr. Pete Brett is available on-call 24/7 to all cancer patients in need of urgent care.