By Jenny Neyman
Angela Beplat’s message is longer than her hair. The note is one of support for a friend fighting cancer, written Saturday on a wall of the concrete vault that will hold the radiation accelerator in the new oncology treatment clinic under construction at Central Peninsula Hospital:
“Dear Friend. Watching you fight this battle this last year has opened my eyes to the strength and endurance every cancer fighter needs to face this head-on. … Thank you for allowing me the opportunity to be your friend and learn alongside you — through your pain, suffering, pokes/prods/body/hair changes, but most of all seeing hope through your eyes has changed me forever! I love you and I will always be there for you.”
The hair she cut last year, also in support of her friend.
“My really close friend Casey has been fighting non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma for the last year and I shaved my head for her last April, and have just been with her on this whole journey. She’s my age — 34 with two young kids,” said Beplat.
When it comes to cancer, it is not unusual for friends, family, co-workers, community members and even complete strangers to do what they can to help.
Fundraisers are well supported, from impromptu spaghetti feeds to annual community events, like the summer’s Relay for Life or this month’s Way Out Women snowmachine ride. Knitters make hats and scarves for people losing their hair to chemotherapy. Volunteers and staff at the hospital make the oncology department feel more like family care than just cancer care.
The hospital’s administration and board of directors answered the community’s wish to have radiation therapy available on the central Kenai Peninsula, rather than patients having to travel to Anchorage or beyond for treatment. The Kenai Peninsula Borough committed $4.7 million for the construction of the new clinic.
Saturday, people braved icy roads and a damp walk in the chilly rain out to the construction site to contribute another measure of support by writing messages on the concrete walls of the vault. As construction progresses, the messages will be covered over and blocked from view. But through the Central Peninsula Hospital Foundation’s “Written in Stone” project, the messages will be recorded and printed in books that will be given to every patient receiving radiation treatment.
Some messages were spiritual, offering comfort in the assurance of God’s love:
“Never, ever, lose hope. To hope is to trust God. To trust God is to have faith. To have faith is to believe. To believe is to hope.”
“Grandpa, you were always so loving, giving and sincere. You are loved and missed. Semper Fi.”
Many were general words of encouragement and support:
“Whether you think you can, or whether you think you can’t, you are right! So know you can, and be a survivor. The world needs you.”
Often they were in prose as colorful as the many hues of permanent marker available for writing.
“I asked for wonder, I met you. Live long and strong.”
And some were short and direct, as unadorned and honest as the rough-surfaced concrete walls being used as a canvas.
The messages were as diverse as the people who came to write them — hospital staff and volunteers, cancer survivors, friends and family of cancer patients, and just general community members who felt moved to participate.
Terrie Butcher, of Soldotna, is a cancer survivor.
“I just want to show my support for the others that are in treatment, and other survivors and families and friends. We’re all in this together,” she said.
Her message: “Faith, hope, love helped me to gather the courage to hold on. You can too. May the Lord be with you on your courageous journey!”
She came with her friend, Beplat, who was there with a message for her friend, Casey. But Beplat had more writing
than just that to do. When she mentioned the Written in Stone project to her friend Casey Randall, and another family friend, Kathy, fighting stage four pancreatic cancer, they both sent messages for Beplat to inscribe.
“I just thought it was awesome. They were so excited about being able to have an opportunity to put something on the walls, too,” Beplat said.
“Be Alive. While you are alive, be alive in your life. Enjoy it, be passionate about what you do, and bring an exciting energy to those around you.”
Her hope is that the messages in the books will give patients some small measure of warmth and connection when undergoing radiation.
“It’s got to be so cold and so scary. It’s cement, it’s anxiety-inducing. Hopefully this takes you out of it and hopefully makes you think about something different,” Beplat said. “My friend said she would just think, ‘Jesus loves me,’ while she was getting her radiation treatment. And she said, ‘It sounds so simple, but it worked for me.’ And I was thinking, ‘How cool for people to be able to read something like this.”
Not only the specifics of the messages, but their volume and very existence at all can offer hope. Susan Smalley, of Kenai, a hospital volunteer, active Relay for Life participant and cancer survivor, said the first comfort newly diagnosed cancer patients crave is the knowledge that the fight can be won.
“Just seeing people’s names in there (the book), and that room today was filled with all these people that I know from Relay and a variety of other things. I think that’s all part of the healing process is knowing that those people are still here. When people first get diagnosed, a lot of people call me and they don’t really need anything, they just want to talk to somebody who didn’t die. Because even though everybody knows that survivability is raised, it’s still a good thing to talk to a live person,” Smalley said.
Plus, there’s the fun factor of a project like this. It is, after all, legitimized graffiti, in a sense.
“I like writing on walls. I didn’t have any spray paint, but my inner child had a good time,” she said.
This is the first time any borough construction project has been thus christened with community participation, to the knowledge of John Hedges, project manager with the borough planning department. He said safety concern would often override opening a construction site to the general public. But in this case the hospital, the Central Peninsula Health Foundation, the borough and the contractor, Denali General Contractors, out of Anchorage, worked together to make the unusual event happen.
Even the doctors who will be offering the clinic flew down from Anchorage to add their names to the walls. Drs. John Halligan and James Blom, with Radiation Business Solutions (RBS) Evolution of Alaska, based out of Anchorage, said they’d never heard of a project like this, either, but were pleased to participate. RBS is helping underwrite the cost of the books so they can be distributed to patients free of charge.
“I thought it was wonderful. It’s just a beautiful thought — people are putting their ideas and baring their hearts and souls. The people who are being treated here will know the prayers and feelings that have gone into this and the support that they have,” said Dr. Halligan.
“People do all sorts of things in construction projects — putting in gold bricks and other things that are kind of meaningless. But this sort of message will resonate through the walls,” said Dr. Blom.
Their message: “For all our patients who have faced the malady of cancer and stood strong with grace and
determination in hopes of cure or ease of suffering; we thank you for letting us be a part of your team and for all you have taught us as physicians and persons. We pray that we, as physicians, may show the same grace and compassion in dealing with our struggles that you have shown. We hope this new center will bring the most compassionate, personal and competent care to all those who shall require treatment here. In your honor and memory, we will strive to always do our finest.”
And the fact that there is going to be radiation treatment available on the central peninsula resonates, as well. Dr. Halligan said that when he first came down to the peninsula to assess what services were available locally, versus in Anchorage, he heard the desire for local radiation treatment from many angles — hospital administration, patients and the borough.
“They asked, ‘When can we get this here?’” he said.
The answer is July. Installation of the accelerator is scheduled to begin April 15 and take six weeks. Following that will be another four to six weeks of testing and calibration. Meanwhile, construction of the surrounding building will continue. Weather has caused some hiccups, particularly delaying the pouring of concrete, but work just shifted to other tasks until weather improved. The timeline still is on schedule, Hedges said.
Dr. Halligan said that the clinic is scheduled to open the beginning of January, with radiation treatment likely to begin in mid-July. He and Dr. Blom said they are impressed by the wide-ranging local support they’ve seen for the clinic, and are looking forward to joining the medical community here. With chemotherapy infusion already available at the hospital, now all but a few patients — particularly, those needing implanted radiation — will be able to stay in their home community for cancer treatment.
“Ninety to 95 percent of people needing radiation therapy will be able to do it down here,” he said.
Enjoying the comforts of home won’t mean a tradeoff in quality of treatment, Dr. Blom said. Though RBS Evolution of Alaska is based in Anchorage, the Soldotna clinic will operate with the same staffing and practices as in Anchorage. The three radiation doctors of RBS, including Halligan and Blom, will trade off, spending a week at a time in Soldotna. Most treatments will be administered Mondays through Fridays, but a doctor will be available evenings and weekends, too, in case of emergencies.
“We don’t consider it a satellite,” Dr. Blom said. “If you’re going to offer services here, you have to offer the best services you can have anywhere, so we’re not going to be having any different level of physician staffing, etc., here than we would in Anchorage.”
The accelerator being installed is brand new, capable of as-good — and even better — precision than any other technology in the state, Dr. Halligan said.
“The accelerator that’s going in here is exactly on par with what we have at Providence (hospital in Anchorage) and it’s actually better than what they have at (Alaska Regional Hospital in Anchorage) or Fairbanks. It’s the updated version,” he said. “In Anchorage, when a patient is being treated, one of us is always there. When we’re treating patients here, one of us is always going to be here. We’re going to do the exact same level of work, and we’ll give the exact same kind of quality that we have in Anchorage.”
Radiation will be used for curative care as well as palliative care — to shrink tumors in order reduce pain or interference with bones, veins or other tissues, even in cases not seen as curable. In palliative care, especially, sparing patients the trip back and forth to Anchorage or elsewhere will be a welcome option.
Making the back-and-forth trip once, much less weekly or even daily, just adds to the overall stress, expense and discomfort of cancer treatment.
Beplat said that she knows a woman in Ninilchik who didn’t want to have to stay in Anchorage, so drove back and forth daily for several weeks for radiation treatment.
“I just think this is a blessing and just a wonderful idea to have this here,” she said.
When Smalley was in treatment, she drove up to Anchorage for treatment, but knew of others who couldn’t do so.
“At that same point in time there were people who couldn’t make that choice — because of schedules, because of deadlines, because of families. It was an impossible situation, so some people chose not to have radiation,” she said.
“Impossible” is the very last word any cancer patient or their support network wants to hear. The radiation clinic will greatly expand the scope of cancer care on the central peninsula. And all the while the walls of the vault in that clinic will radiate with hope, faith, strength, love and endless possibilities.
As one messenger wrote: “Sometimes I believe in as many as six things that are impossible before breakfast!” from “Alice in Wonderland.”