Cancer, chemo, CHCC, Medical Referral, and what we eat


Just to be clear, I’m seeking answers, not sympathy. Then somewhere down the line, a solution. I tell this story as a concerned citizen, but mainly for my sister, Jo Anna “Jojo.”

This is Jojo’s third time in ICU. I lost count of the number of days, nights I’ve spent at the hospital watching over my sister since she was diagnosed with cancer. The days have all blended together, blurred, knowing what day has become irrelevant. What the hour of the day is unimportant. Lack of sleep has become a part of life. The only thing important, especially at this juncture, is how to comfort her and keep her spirits up. Lately, this has become a next to impossible feat. Her fight for life is real.

As I sit in this room, looking at her with all these lines and tubes connected to her, a suppressed memory is triggered. The memory of our mother when she was stricken with cancer, lying on her deathbed. You see we lost our mother when we were still very young. I was 10 years old at the time, Jojo was 8 and Aileen only 2. That was 39 years ago. Fast-forward to the present day, the treatment—nuclear therapy-chemo—between today and four decades ago remains the same. Chemo is a radiation treatment that contains powerful chemicals to slow the cancer or put it into remission, lessening the chance it will return, stopping or slowing its growth. I also learned in the process that it may ease cancer symptoms by shrinking tumors that are causing pain and other problems. However, the treatment also made her seriously weak, which is difficult for any person to undergo another round of chemo. If any, it sucks the life out of the patient. I do not recommend it. Chemo is a killer! I am appalled to learn that to this day, there’s no other alternative for cancer treatment here in the CNMI. Why is that? In this day and age with all this technology, we still apply the same methods from decades ago? Wow! I refuse to believe that no one has ever thought of an alternative treatment for the CNMI.

I am sharing this story just so y’all understand where I am coming from. I’ve never in my life felt such a sense of helplessness, witnessing my family go through this same event twice. First as a 10-year-old son to a young mother and now as an older brother to a sister. Thoughts of “What more can I do?,” “What can I do today to help ease her pain?,” “What remedies can I give her so she can have an appetite?” runs continuously in my mind on a daily basis.

Another question in particular that lingers and won’t leave my thoughts: What is the process and how are results handled when our people are diagnosed with a serious or terminal condition? It brings me to question the procedure(s) between the Commonwealth Healthcare Corp. doctors and the Medical Referral Program. The other question and the most important to me: What took both CHCC and the Medical Referral Program so long to finally send Jojo to Guam?

After my sister received the news of her blood work results, her doctor sent an immediate request to Medical Referral to have her treated in Guam. Now mind you, at the time, when the doctor made the request she was still walking and had a lot of strength in her. So she waited as we waited. Nearly three weeks later, a call from Medical Referral Office informed her that she has been finally scheduled to fly to Guam. By that time, the cancer had maliciously spread and traveling was difficult. She had to request for a wheelchair since she was no longer able to stand on her own. She was immobile, lost all control/feeling from the waist down. I was filled with despair, disbelief, and anger seeing my sister crippled to that point.

Why didn’t you guys communicate with us (the family)? We would have made the necessary arrangements and accommodations for her. This would not have been an issue. Immediately after arriving in Guam, she was seen by an oncologist. They were disappointed upon seeing her, asking the same questions: What took them so long? And I quote “all of this could have been prevented”—from an oncologist in Guam. So like I first mentioned, I want answers.

I have reached out to our people to see if there were any others who might have experienced the same treatment from our referral program. Apparently, we are not the only family to undergo this type of costly holdback. To my shock, there is a serious amount of our people that have expressed their disappointment with the program and how their case was handled. Some of them expressed extreme anger at the program for the same lengthy delay that they believe caused them the passing of their loved ones. One individual went to the extent of saying, “It’s like they’re playing God.” Don’t get me wrong folks, we in the CNMI are fortunate to have such a program. But, just maybe the referral system needs streamlining/updating in regards to certain procedures. Immediate action could mean the difference between life or death. There is one case which I reviewed, painstakingly, where a seriously ill child was sent on referral. I won’t mention any names as to protect the family’s privacy. The child passed away during the referral. The program, from what I’ve been told by the family, was unwilling to assist with the return of the child’s body back to the CNMI. I’m not going to make any assumptions or throw blame, but that just doesn’t sound right to me. If we are able to send one of our own for referral, then we should be able to bring them back or at least assist in some form or manner. But, this is not the case and I’m pretty sure Medical Referral had their reasons. I would still like to hear the side of Medical Referral on this particular case, though. Like I said, answers.

I’m not trying to put a price on life. But we spend millions on referral every year. If we have millions to spare our people for their medical needs, then do so. I believe that’s what we’ve been doing for the past two-three decades. How is it working out for us, the people? I don’t think it’s working as well as it should be. We need to do more with this program, take a different approach. Every year the needed funding for the referral program increases. That signifies that every year more and more of our people are getting sick. So how about we start redirecting some of our efforts to educating our people on the causes of cancer. The preventive measures used to combat cancer. Or, eating the right foods, the dangers of processed foods, what type of foods are carcinogenic, study foods from the United States that are banned in other countries and why, ban foods from other countries that contain poisonous chemicals, ban kids snacks that contain the chemical red dye, study other countries with low cancer rates and figure out how did they succeed.

There are so many foods today that we import that are just slowly killing us. We allow it coz we don’t know any better and we trust in the companies that supply our food. That needs to change. We need to be more knowledgeable and monitor the providers of our foods so that we know exactly what we are consuming. Building our agricultural system can change all this and at the same time give us the food security that we so desperately need. We need to break the cycle of cancer beginning with what we eat.

Keith William C. Ada
Chalan Kanoa, Saipan

Contributing Author

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