In just a matter of months, scrubs and white lab coats will replace hardhats at the construction site on County Road 39 in Southampton Village — where a former potato farm will be home to the future of cancer care, a project years in the making.
Oncologists and their nurses will soon fill the halls, working alongside pharmacists, medical assistants, radiation therapists and dosimetrists, physicists and nurse practitioners, all with one shared goal: to provide an unprecedented level of cancer care on the East End.
By early next year, the $24-million Phillips Family Cancer Center — the latest endeavor by Stony Brook Southampton Hospital — will address a longtime demand made by a community where cancer statistics run high above the national average, with little access to quality oncology care.
If all regulatory requirements are met, East End patients will no longer need to drive hours for cancer treatment, pending completed construction by December, according to Kevin Unruh, vice president of imaging and cancer services at Stony Brook Southampton Hospital.
“Cancer treatment can be very exhausting — whether it’s radiation or chemotherapy, or a combination of both — and patients become very fatigued as their treatment progresses,” Unruh said. “If they have to drive or commute well out of the community for academic medicine treatment, that is even more exhausting. We heard an outcry from the community and patients, and now they will have the same treatment they would get at the Stony Brook Cancer Center, whether that be clinical trials or any other academic treatments, right here in their neighborhood.”
The 14,300-square-foot facility will offer medical oncology — which includes chemotherapy — and house the South Fork’s first radiation oncology unit, with the next-closest units in Riverhead and Commack. The two-story center will also be a one-stop shop for supportive care, education, planning and clinical trails offered through Stony Brook Medicine, Unruh said.
“We’re really excited. It’s been a long time coming and everything has lined up thanks to the Phillips family,” he said. “We wouldn’t have it without them. That’s one of the amazing things about the community out here.”
Once completed, the center will partner with local organizations, such as Fighting Chance, The Coalition for Women’s Cancers at Stony Brook Southampton Hospital, Lucia’s Angels, and The Ellen Hermanson Foundation — founded by Julie Ratner in 1996 and named in honor of her younger sister, Ellen, who died of breast cancer at age 42.
“The rates of cancer out here are extremely high, and I think the Phillips Family Cancer Center is an asset to our community that has been very needed,” Ratner said. “And I think it will change the medical landscape even more, and provide better care for people — and hopefully it will translate into healthier lives.”
E.W. Howell Construction Group broke ground June 10, 2017, on the two-story building designed by Bridgehampton-based Blaze Makoid Architecture to mimic the conceptual design of a potato barn. Much of the light-infused facility revolves around the installation of a state-of-the-art linear accelerator by Varian Medical Systems, which will be used to administer radiation treatment.
The accelerator vault will be located on the first floor, with thick walls and an 18,000-pound high-density leaded concrete door to ensure that no radiation escapes the room, Unruh said.
“It’s the newest radiation treatment accelerator that Varian currently produces,” he said. “There is nothing like it on the East End.”
The second-floor chemotherapy infusion area will feature double-height, cathedral ceilings, skylights and window views. The open floor plan will allow patients to sit with one another, or their families, if they choose, Unruh said.
“Many patients get to know each other because they see each other every day in the waiting room. They talk to each other,” he said. “What we learned from Stony Brook is many of those patients request to sit together during their treatment. That area would give those patients the ability, on request, to sit with each other while they’re having their infusion therapy.”
Of the 14 chemotherapy chairs, The Ellen Hermanson Foundation has funded 10 of them by raising $100,000, Ratner said, and is already looking toward their next contribution.
“We will be poised and ready to respond because our commitment is to provide access to state-of-the-art quality health care, and that access ought to be a human right,” she said. “I don’t know what that need will be, but when we hear and know of it, I am sure we will respond to the best of our ability.
“The East End has one of the highest rates of diagnosis and mortality when it comes to breast cancer in the state,” she continued. “There’s just a lot of cancer out here, which is what makes this Phillips Family Cancer Center so incredibly necessary, because the need is so great.”
Cancer mortality, incidence and prevalence among South Fork residents are disproportionately high compared to New York State and national benchmarks — approximately 30 percent higher than national trends, according to Stony Brook Southampton Hospital.
“One out of every three Americans will get cancer in their lifetime,” Fighting Chance founder Duncan Darrow said. “Turn to your left, turn to your right. One of the three of you will get cancer. And one of the four of you will die of it. It’s a big killer. And cancer is the ultimate family disease. It ripples through the entire family. So that’s where we come in.”
With a storefront presence in Sag Harbor — and, soon, a hospital presence at the Phillips Family Cancer Center — Fighting Chance is the oldest and largest free cancer-counseling center in the United States, Mr. Darrow said, providing psycho-oncology care to patients and their families.
“Every single cancer patient, regardless of the medical treatment they’re receiving, needs psycho-oncology,” he said. “Because those three words, ‘You have cancer,’ puts you into hyper-anxiety and stress — not to mention the caregiver, who could be your spouse, not to mention your teenaged children, who could be bullied at school because people are saying, ‘Mommy has cancer, Mommy’s gonna die.’ Believe it or not, we do have that every day.”
In round numbers, 1,000 East End residents are diagnosed with cancer annually. About 200 are late-stage and immediately enter hospice care, and another 200 are counseled by Fighting Chance. The remaining 600 are left with uncertainty, and Darrow said he hopes they find their way to his organization, and the Phillips Family Cancer Center at large.
“Any community not in a large urban center would be extremely fortunate to have something like the Phillips Family Cancer Center,” Darrow said. “This is going to be a profoundly important development in improving health care on the East End. That much I can say.”
Fighting Chance and Hampton Jitney Team Up
For some patients on the East End, a cancer diagnosis means mandatory care for weeks on end at an urban oncology facility in Manhattan.
But when two round-trip Hampton Jitney tickets — for patient and caregiver — cost more than $120, that expense can add up.
Enter Fighting Chance, a Sag Harbor-based nonprofit organization providing free support for cancer patients, which has joined forces with Hampton Jitney to provide bus tickets at zero cost.
Together, for three years running, they have fundraised thousands of tickets for cancer patients — 800 tickets the first year and more than 1,000 last year, now on track for record numbers in 2018, according to Geoffrey Lynch, president of Hampton Jitney.
Ultimately, every ticket is used, he said.
“Fighting Chance, for us — not just for me, but for Hampton Jitney as an organization — it’s a local charity that all of us here at Hampton Jitney can support because cancer touches everybody,” Lynch said. “It’s something that we’ve all embraced and we feel is a very worthwhile endeavor, and want to support.”
Last year, the organizations raised $30,750, with Hampton Jitney matching individual donations. With the completion of the Phillips Family Cancer Center on County Road 39 in Southampton, Lynch anticipates that more patients will be treated on the East End.
“That would be the goal, frankly, but it’s hard to say at this point,” he said. “That would be nice to see, that people would not have to travel as far as they have in the past for cancer treatment, because this facility becomes very successful. We’re certainly okay with that. That’s something we would hope would happen.”
Hampton Jitney tickets must be picked up, in person, at the Fighting Chance office, located at 34 Bay Street, Suite 201, in Sag Harbor. For more information, call (631) 725-4646 or visit fightingchance.org.