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Cancer care greatly expanded for Kenai Peninsula Alaskans with new radiation clinic

Jenny Neyman / Redoubt Reporter

Angela Beplat’s message is longer than her hair. The note is one of support for a friend fighting cancer, written last week 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 in Soldotna, Alaska:

“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 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’s common for friends, family, co-workers -- sometimes complete strangers -- to do what they can to help.

Leaving heartfelt messages

Not long ago, the Central Peninsula Hospital administration and board of directors answered the Kenai Peninsula community’s wish to have radiation therapy available nearby, rather than forcing patients to travel to Anchorage or beyond for treatment. The Kenai Peninsula Borough committed $4.7 million for the construction of the new clinic.

About a week ago, people braved icy roads and a damp walk in the chilly rain 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.”

Others were personal, addressed in memory to a loved one who succumbed to the disease, or in celebration of a victory against it: “Grandpa, you were always so loving, giving and sincere. You are loved and missed. Semper Fi.”

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.

“Cancer sucks.”

'Legitimized graffiti' 

Beyond specifics, the number of messages alone can offer hope. Susan Smalley of Kenai, a hospital volunteer 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 (the book) … I think that’s all part of the healing process. When people first get diagnosed, a lot of people call me, and they don’t really need anything,” Smalley said.  “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.”

Though the topic is serious, there’s the fun factor of a project like this. After all, it is 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 Kenai Peninsula Borough construction project has been so christened, according to John Hedges, project manager. He said safety concerns often prevent 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 of Anchorage) worked to make it happen.

Several doctors flew down from Anchorage, Alaska’s largest city about 150 miles away, to add their names to the walls. Drs. John Halligan and James Blom, with Radiation Business Solutions (RBS) Evolution of Alaska, 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 a 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.”

Proximity alleves some stress

And the fact that there is going to be radiation treatment available on the central Peninsula resonates, too. 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 hospital administrators, patients and borough officials.

“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 shifted to other tasks.

Dr. Halligan said that the clinic is scheduled to open in January 2014, with radiation treatment likely to begin in mid-July. He and Dr. Blom said they are impressed by the extensive local support for the clinic they’ve seen. With chemotherapy infusion already available at the hospital, now most patients — except 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.

First-rate accelerator

Although RBS Evolution of Alaska is based in Anchorage, the Soldotna clinic will operate with the same staffing and practices. The three radiation doctors of RBS, including Halligan and Blom, will trade off, spending a week at a time in Soldotna.

“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 new accelerator being installed is as good as 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

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 daily -- adds to the 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 she drove back and forth daily for several weeks during radiation treatment. “This is a blessing,” she said.

When Smalley was in treatment, she drove up to Anchorage for treatment, but knew of others who didn’t have the time or money to do so.

“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.”

Jenny Neyman is editor of the Redoubt Reporter, published on the Kenai Peninsula. Used with permission.