June 24, 2008

Cancer Treatment Center Celebrates an Anniversary

By Emily Christensen, Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier, Iowa

Jun. 24--WATERLOO -- Twenty-one years ago Marian Ballard underwent radiation treatment in the basement of Schoitz Memorial Hospital.

The dark, dreary room did little to lift the spirits of the men and women seeking treatment for cancer. There were no volunteers mingling among the patients to lend an ear or bring them a cup of coffee or a cookie.

It was all business, and for some it saved lives.

But, area doctors knew patients needed more than that, and more importantly, they needed it all in one place. Oncologists Drs. Robert Guthrie and Jasjeet Sangha were the driving force behind the design and implementation of the Covenant Cancer Treatment Center, said Mark Ponto, manager of the center's radiation oncology department. The center, which celebrates its 20th anniversary this year, was the first comprehensive cancer treatment facility in the state and continues to be one of only a few in the Midwest.

"Their practice was growing and they were looking at getting some new modern equipment. The idea was to have a comprehensive center offering all the modalities in one spot," Ponto said. "Originally they also pulled in Cedar Valley Hospice and the American Cancer Society to offer that support aspect, too."

Both the hospice and American Cancer Society programs have relocated but the center, which offers both chemotherapy and radiation treatments, continues to provide support services through an on-site social worker.

Dr. Cassandra Foens, a radiation oncologist with Clinical Radiologists PC, which is affiliated with the cancer treatment center, said the center is even more important today as a growing number of patients are recommended for both chemotherapy and radiation therapy to treat their cancer.

"We have a whole generation of head and neck cancer patients who will never get surgery now because we have proved that combination therapy can be just as effective without the need for surgery," Foens said. "If those patients had to coordinate their treatments in Waterloo and Grundy Center or Mason City it would be very difficult for them to continue on with their daily activities. ... This kind of practice was revolutionary 20 years ago, but it is still meeting our patients' needs today."

Ballard, now 80 and cancer-free, sees weekly the impact the center and her volunteer efforts can have on newly diagnosed patients. She has volunteered at the center since 1993 when she decided she "owed them some paybacks." She spends much of her time in the chemotherapy room offering snacks to patients unable to get them for themselves.

"Once in awhile someone will say they want a bourbon and 7-Up or scrambled eggs and bacon," she said. "I say if I can find it, I will bring it out and we can share it. It's great that these people, even when they are in dire straits, still have a sense of humor."

But Ballard said her most important task is being a sympathetic ear for those who just need to talk. Because she volunteers on the same day each week she often sees the same patients and sometimes develops a relationship. Their conversations usually start with the obligatory small talk, but Ballard said she eventually works it in that she is a 20-year survivor.

"I tell them I'm still here, just as fat and sassy as ever," she said.

Roger Raum, 52, was among the first to be treated at the center when it opened in 1998. At the time, Raum was working in Waterloo as the manager of a low-income housing project. He is now a principal in the Nodaway Valley Community School District.

"I had an appointment right after work every day beginning in January (1999). Had the center not been there it would have been difficult for me to keep my job," he said. "Keeping my job and carrying on with my day-to-day activities for me created a diversion. There were enough distractions that it helped me stay positive."

Though the center's founding doctors are no longer at the center -- Guthrie died in a skiing accident in February and Sangha now practices with Cedar Valley Medical Specialists -- its mission remains the same.

"It is so much better for patients to know they can find the services they need in one location," Foens said. "We have elderly patients coming from out of town who don't know Waterloo well. We don't want them to have to drive to five locations across town to get their care. This is the ideal circumstances for patients to be treated and if you look at anyone buiding new cancer centers, this is what they are trying to build."

Contact Emily Christensen at (319) 291-1570 or [email protected]


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