By Jenny Neyman
Battling cancer is hard enough. Doing so away from home makes a stressful, emotional, expensive and physically strenuous process all the more difficult, adding the insult of isolation to the other injuries of the disease.
Come next year, travel will no longer be an unavoidable component to cancer treatment for residents of the central Kenai Peninsula, as an expansion to Central Peninsula Hospital will allow the one-two punch of chemotherapy and radiation to be administered on-site.
While chemotherapy infusion has been available at CPH, the hospital expansion will open as an oncology clinic offering radiation treatment for the first time anywhere on the peninsula. That means many cancer patients will no longer have to drive back and forth to Anchorage, nor take a flight even farther away, for treatment. They can sleep in their own bed, recuperate in their own home between treatment appointments and have their own support network around them.
The Central Peninsula Health Foundation is taking that idea one step further, initiating a Written in Stone — Messages from the Heart for Hope and Healing project that will literally have cancer patients surrounded by the support of their community while undergoing radiation treatment. In the coming weeks, the foundation will hold an event at the new oncology clinic’s construction site at the hospital, inviting community members to come write messages on the cement walls of the vault that will house the linear accelerator that will deliver the radiation.
“It can be any kind of message, maybe in memory of a loved one that someone lost to cancer, maybe in honor of a survivor, whether it’s scripture or personal or whatever,” said Kathy Gensel, foundation director.
With chemotherapy infusion, it’s possible to have friends and loved ones keep the patient company, but radiation is administered alone. At the CPH clinic, though, radiation patients will be able to comfort themselves with knowledge that they are supported, encouraged and cared for by their community.
“They’ll know what’s written on the walls surrounding them and hopefully that will give them some sort of comfort,” Gensel said.
The idea came from Camille Sorensen, marketing manager for the hospital. She saw a YouTube video in which iron workers putting up a new building at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston spray-painted names and messages to kids undergoing cancer treatment in the building facing their construction site.
“It was such a neat thing. We were like, ‘Man, that would be such a cool thing to do something like that here,’” Gensel said.
The first thought was to have interested community members sign a piece of plywood or 2-by-4 that then would be used in the clinic’s construction.
“Something that could become part of the building, just something that the foundation is built on,” she said.
They met with the borough’s project manager overseeing construction of the clinic, John Hedges, in hopes of talking him into the idea. Persuasion wasn’t needed.
“We showed him this YouTube video and he kind of sat there, then said, ‘Well, how about if we find a time people can write messages on the cement wall?’ And I’m like, ‘That would be awesome!’ We were not even sure we would be able to explain to him well enough what we wanted to do, but it was clear, ‘OK, you get it.’”
The concrete idea is even better than plywood, as it will be more permanent. It also offers plenty of real estate on which to write — with the vault being about 36-by-36 and several feet thick, Hedges said.
The concrete will be covered by walls that can be painted for outward appearances, but the surface of the vault itself will remain untouched.
“That way it will encapsulate everything into the construction,” he said.
Construction of the single-story clinic began late this summer, and is expected to be complete by April 15. The clinic is slated to open next summer, to be leased and operated by Drs. John Halligan and James Blom, with Radiation Business Solutions (RBS) Evolution Of Alaska, LLC, based out of Anchorage.
The Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly enacted an ordinance March 13 appropriating $4.7 million for construction of the clinic, and accepted a grant for $2 million from the Alaska Department of Commerce, Community and Economic Development for the project. Construction is being done by Denali General Contractors, out of Anchorage, for a bid amount of $5,850,000.
The cold weather has delayed pouring the slab for the new building, Hedges said. Once that happens it’ll be short order to schedule a time to come do the writing. In the meantime, Gensel is distributing forms with information about the Written in Stone project throughout the community to drum up interest and get people thinking about what message they’d like to contribute. For a copy of the form, visit the foundation’s website at http://www.givingheals.org. As soon as a date is known, it will be posted on that website and advertised throughout the area.
“We have no idea how many people might do this, but we’ve sent it out to all different folks that will hopefully distribute it out to their lists,” Gensel said.
She’s planning a ceremony, lead by Meg Zerbinos, spiritual care coordinator at the hospital, to be part of the event. Once the messages are written, they’ll all be recorded and turned into a booklet that will be available to all patients undergoing radiation treatment, so they can see what people wrote and take that encouragement with them. Drs. Halliday and Blom are underwriting half of the cost of producing the book, with the foundation matching the rest.
“Which I thought was just awesome that they would do that for us,” Gensel said. “So we can give that book to anybody who comes in there and has radiation done.”
The Written in Stone project is a nice embellishment to the real gem for central peninsula cancer patients — having an oncology radiation clinic available locally, said Vicki Janz, administrative assistant in the borough’s capital projects department.
And she would know, having spent the bulk of last May and June in Anchorage getting radiation cancer treatment.
“I spent six weeks in Anchorage for 15 minutes a day,” she said.
Her appointments were daily, Monday through Friday. Even though her appointments were only a fraction of an hour, the idea of doing the three-hour-each-way drive daily was more than she wanted to deal with, so she stayed in Anchorage during the week and came home on weekends.
“It’s a wonderful machine and, really the treatment just goes for five to 10 minutes, but it’s doing things to your internal organs. It’s destroying cancer and it’s a tiring process, and to drive after that, I couldn’t handle that,” Janz said. “I mean, you want a nap afterwards at the very least. It’s a physical toll, and the longer the treatment goes on the more physical problems you start to have. And generally you aren’t just taking radiation, you’re taking chemo in conjunction with it.”
It was more convenient to just stay in Anchorage during the week, but certainly not more budget-friendly. Her lodging was $70 a night, even with assistance from cancer support programs.
“Insurance doesn’t cover that kind of cost. We came home on weekends, and the place fills up so you’re not guaranteed a room next week,” she said. That could mean staying in a regular hotel, which, especially in the summer, would run over $100 a night.
Even in her 15-minute appointments in Anchorage, she still lost count of how many other Kenai Peninsula residents she saw also in treatment in Anchorage.
“I’m not the only one. I don’t know how many people I met waiting in various doctor’s offices who were form here or from somewhere else on the peninsula. And there are some people who drive daily. One lady in Nikiski drove every day, both ways. Can you imagine that? And six hours a day in a car for an older person, there’s blood circulation issues and other things. That creates a whole range of problems if you do drive.”
Still, home is where the heart is, and there is little that’s heartening about fighting cancer. Giving patients the comforts of home, and comforting them with the knowledge they are cared for by their community, has real worth beyond even the cost of gas and lodging incurred by traveling for treatment.
“It’s not just the financial part, it’s sleeping in your own bed. You’re going through a pretty emotional experience, you don’t have your support networks and you don’t have your bed,” Janz said.
“I can’t see anything but benefits to having the treatment here,” she said.