New PeaceHealth St. Joseph center aims to meet growing need for cancer care

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDMay 6, 2013 

On a recent Tuesday, as rain falls outside, yoga instructor Holly Davidson stands before eight women inside a room at the new PeaceHealth St. Joseph Cancer Center and, in a soothing voice, leads them through an hour of meditation and gentle yoga.

"Feel your spine grow tall and your head reach toward the sky," she says during the noon session for cancer patients, cancer survivors and PeaceHealth employees.

Then, as they inhale, they slowly raise their arms to the ceiling. As they exhale, they lower their arms.

"Let the fingers flow down toward the ground," says Davidson, who has been teaching the free weekly classes as a volunteer since January, shortly after the opening of the $23 million cancer center at 3301 Squalicum Parkway, in Bellingham.

"It's been extremely rewarding so far," says Davidson, who owns Ferndale Kula Yoga. "Moving a little bit and breathing a lot is what I want people to take away from it."

A consistent yoga program is new to the 35,000-square-foot center, which opened Dec. 10 to bring PeaceHealth's non-surgical cancer care in Whatcom County under one roof.

Donors contributed nearly $10 million and PeaceHealth added $13 million for the center.

PeaceHealth officials say patients can now see their cancer specialists and receive chemotherapy, radiation therapy and support services in one place, instead of in three separate locations, as had been the case previously.

That's more convenient for patients, PeaceHealth says, and makes it easier for doctors and caregivers to collaborate.

CANCER CARE ON THE RISE

The center was built to allow a second story to be added on. Expansion is likely, given that local and nationwide trends indicate a growing need for cancer care, according to Dr. Jennie Crews, the center's medical director.

The number of cancer patients seeking treatment at PeaceHealth St. Joseph grew from 906 in 2001 to 1,210 a decade later, according to PeaceHealth data.

Meanwhile, the number of new cancer cases diagnosed annually in the U.S. is expected to increase by 45 percent to 2.3 million by 2030, according to a 2009 Journal of Clinical Oncology study.

An aging baby boomer population is one reason for the expected increase, according to Crews.

"Cancer occurs more in the elderly," she says.

In people 65 and older, the number of new cancer cases diagnosed each year in the U.S. is expected to increase by 67 percent to 1.6 million by 2030, according to the same Clinical Oncology study.

The need also will grow because success in treating cancer means there are more survivors.

"So there's going to be a growing need for follow-up," Crews explains.

PeaceHealth's new center and its caregivers will meet those cancer needs in the region, officials say. Crews says it's important that Whatcom County residents know about the comprehensive care the center provides.

"What we have to offer here in this community is comparable to what they would have to travel long distances to get," she says. "They don't have to go two hours down the road."

Crews notes that patients treated for breast, colorectal, prostate and lung cancer at PeaceHealth St. Joseph are at or above national averages for survival.

"That's an important message to get out," she says. "Patients want to know that the care here is as good as it gets."

ARRAY OF SERVICES, AND ART

There are efforts to make the center soothing, starting with a story rug by Bellingham artist Dale Gottlieb. Hanging on a wall in the lobby, the rug shows a bird, four eggs in a nest, and the lines, "I want to sing like the birds sing, not worrying about who hears or what they think."

Beyond the wall hanging, a glass-enclosed fireplace throws off warmth, light and cheer.

In another section of the center, a faux window above a linear accelerator - a piece of radiation equipment that zaps cancer - shows blue skies and a flowering tree branch. There are cushiony recliners in the infusion bays, where patients receiving chemotherapy can look out at "healing gardens" created to promote calmness and reflection.

The center has two new linear accelerators for radiation therapy, 18 infusion bays for chemotherapy and hydration, the oncology clinic, and complementary therapy, such as art therapy, pet therapy, and massage, yoga, acupuncture and Reiki.

"We're supporting the whole body of the person, not just treating them for cancer," says Carol Brumet, the center's program coordinator and outreach person.

There's also a wig bank and scarves for patients who need them. Support services include a nurse who coordinates care for patients - making sure they get to appointments, tests and procedures on time, and making scheduling convenient for patients.

Called the Nurse Navigator Program, the help exists for patients with head, neck and lung cancers. A program is being developed for those with breast cancer, too.

The center also is launching an effort in which a physician's assistant will develop a survivorship program to help patients with the next step, such as nutrition, exercise and other issues related to returning to normal life.

"Sometimes people have anxiety or depression as a result of therapy," Crews says.

Other services include a pharmacy, laboratory, dietitian, chaplain and social work, as well as ongoing and active clinical trials. Such trials are studies in oncology that advance knowledge and provide cutting-edge care, Crews says.

"That is really how we learn the best ways to treat cancers," she says.

The clinical trials are done in partnership with the Mayo Clinic.

And with most of what they need under one roof - other than surgery - getting care will be easier for cancer patients.

"If you were going through treatment a year ago, you really had to pay attention to your calendar, especially if you were getting radiation, chemotherapy and maybe you were taking the art class, because you went to difference places," Brumet says.

"But now you pull into the same parking lot," she says. "You see your doctor, you get your radiation treatment, maybe you have your blood drawn, and then you walk down the hall and you get a massage."

Reach Kie Relyea at 360-715-2234 or kie.relyea@bellinghamherald.com.

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