Building a Fortress Against Cancer
By Christine Sampson
In the same way radiation therapy targets specific abnormal cells to heal a human body of cancer, Southampton Hospital’s new Phillips Family Cancer Center itself is a targeted treatment for a specific problem plaguing the South Fork.
That problem is the long distances that cancer patients and their caretakers face when traveling for treatment. The long trips made for regular doses of chemotherapy and radiation — to Riverhead, to Stony Brook, even to New York City — wear on patients’ health, often causing exhaustion, which can have an impact on their quality of life and the effectiveness of the treatments they receive. That’s according to several Southampton Hospital administrators and doctors, including Dr. Samuel Ryu, the chairman of Stony Brook Medicine’s department of radiation oncology, who will be overseeing the medical aspects of the Phillips Family Cancer Center when it opens.
“This has been a project for the past few years, and we finally saw the groundbreaking,” Dr. Ryu said in an interview. “During that time I really saw the necessity of having a cancer center in the Southampton area. What I promised at the groundbreaking is the highest quality cancer treatment possible. That’s the vision I have.”
The cancer center, one of the first cooperative efforts between Southampton Hospital and Stony Brook University Hospital, which will merge later this year, “is very much needed on the South Fork,” according to Dr. Fred Weinbaum, executive vice president for operations and chief medical officer at Southampton Hospital.
“There is no other site that is going to have the same capacity between here and Stony Brook, really,” Dr. Weinbaum said. “As a freestanding cancer center, it’s going to be the only place which will have the combination of radiation therapy and chemo-infusion in one building site, coupled with services of education, navigation and palliative care. It’s really needed by the community.”
Once a patient has been diagnosed with cancer at the hospital, for which new specialized equipment has been installed, the Phillips Family Cancer Center will offer multiple treatment options. One floor will be dedicated to radiation oncology and another dedicated to chemotherapy infusion. Clinical trial programs that show “a lot of promise” will be available as well, Dr. Ryu said.
“To do all this high quality care and the clinical trials, we will also provide the best radiation oncologists and medical oncologists, so we are actively looking at those who are qualified,” he said. “Cancer care will also require a lot of supportive care. It will include nursing and also palliative care and survivorship.”
The center, to be located on County Road 39 in Southampton, will not only serve new patients on the South Fork but also those who have beat cancer and are receiving survivors’ services at Stony Brook. It will also have a strong educational component, including continuing education for staff members as well as programs for patients and their caretakers and loved ones. There will also be community-oriented spaces for nonprofit organizations to bring in wellness programs, lectures, yoga and other events. It was designed by Bridgehampton architect Blaze Makoid to have the appearance of a large farm house, and because of the sloping nature of the property, it will be built partially into the ground.
Kevin Unruh, Southampton Hospital’s vice president for imaging and cancer services, explained there is an added benefit of having the structure built that way.
“It will enable the radiation treatment facility, the linear accelerator, to be built mostly underground, so that provides additional shielding and reduces the cost of the shielding,” said Mr. Unruh, who is overseeing the technological aspects of the new cancer center. “It really is a great design.”
Robert Chaloner, Southampton Hospital chief executive officer, said the lack of a dedicated cancer treatment facility “is the only program where I’ve actually had people sending letters and people in my office in tears asking us to develop a facility like this.”
“Each time I have wished I could just wave a magic wand and respond to those requests to get help closer to home,” he said. “I think it’s very desperately needed.”
He said the hospital very carefully considered the cost of the cancer center before breaking ground.
“We don’t do that without very careful business planning here,” Mr. Chaloner said. “We want to make sure we can support it clinically and we can support it financially. We don’t ever want to create something that’s going to put the rest of the hospital at risk financially.”
The cancer center bears the name of a family with a niece who suffered from cancer in the 1980s and had to travel long distances for treatment. Mr. Chaloner explained the family established a trust with Southampton Hospital as the benefactor, and that trust is now what is funding the cancer center — which is designed to eliminate the very problem of patients having to travel long distances for cancer care.
“When we took it on, we said, ‘It’s a big project and how will we support it?’” Mr. Chaloner said. “The pieces have come together. It’s there and it’s been amazing to watch.”
Giving Fighting Chance a Chance to Grow
With the opening of Southampton Hospital’s Phillips Family Cancer Center on the horizon, Fighting Chance has a chance to make even more of an impact.
The organization, which already works closely with Southampton Hospital and local health-oriented nonprofit organizations, will have a physical space in the new cancer center in addition to its Sag Harbor headquarters. Fighting Chance already provides counseling, educational programs, wellness activities and services for free for cancer patients and their caregivers. Karrie Robinson, Fighting Chance’s director of clinical services and programs, said the relationship with the new cancer center will allow the organization to expand services to underserved areas on the East End and add more wellness programs to its slate of offerings. It will also ease the referral process to doctors and other supportive healthcare providers.
“We have to adjust the focus of our programs depending on the changing needs of our patients — the kinds of techniques and strategies that reduce stress and help people build back their strength, where they then resume their lives, feel comfortable and adapt to whatever changes there are,” Ms. Robinson said in an interview.
She said there is a natural synergy between Fighting Chance and the Phillips Family Cancer Center.
“To have the opportunity to coordinate services, to learn from each other, to work as a team … should focus the care in a way that is more efficient and the patient will benefit,” Ms. Robinson said. “I’m getting excited as I’m talking to you. This is a real opportunity out here to improve treatment, to encourage research. All of that is in the best interest of the patient.”
Although the cancer center presents a huge opportunity for Fighting Chance, the organization is still in need of community support. Not only does it need monetary donations, which provide the resources to run the programs and services for free to cancer patients and their caretakers, but the non-profit also needs volunteer drivers to step up to provide one of those services: Transporting cancer patients to and from doctor appointments, often in Riverhead or Stony Brook. That kind of help can be transformative for the patients themselves because treatment is often exhausting, Ms. Robinson said.
“People pay a price for having this treatment. There are so many variables that affect your recovery — your economic status, your age, your dual conditions,” she said. “Are you a single mother recovering and you don’t have help? Everyone is not created equal in this. It’s complicated.”
She continued, “In this world, who do we want to be? Do I dare ask that question? Do we want to be people who care for each other? I think we do.”