CEDAR CITY – Alone and disrobed, breast cancer survivor Robyn Brown said, she’d lose herself in her playlist while staring at the art-plastered ceiling of the treatment room in the Cedar City Huntsman-Intermountain Cancer Center at Valley View Medical Center, a center providing treatment options for cancer patients that are extraordinary for the small town in Iron County.
Robyn Brown’s experience
“You read them over and over and over,” Brown said, pointing out some of her favorite tiles while touring the facility. The children’s art was installed to uplift patients during radiation and Brown said they really helped get her through some dark days.
Revealing her tattoos – the tiny little dots that would tell the lasers where to line up to deliver the radiation – Brown said it was important to stay completely still during the treatment. She said they would have her hold on to a “form” that would position her the same way every single time, ensuring that her important organs and healthy tissue would not be destroyed by the radiation treatments.
She worked at her job as a middle school teacher through almost the entire process, Brown said. Being able to continue working during treatment was only an option because there was a cancer center nearby, she said. If she had to go to St. George to receive her treatments, she wouldn’t have been able to work as much while receiving radiation, which would have been a terrible strain on her finances.
Developing a cancer treatment facility in Cedar City
By all reasonable accounts, Cedar City shouldn’t even have a cancer treatment center, let alone one with such top notch technology, Valley View Medical Center Foundation Development Officer Michael France said.
“As a matter of fact, in Utah we are hands down the smallest community with a cancer treatment center by, like, 100,000 people,” he said. “We are a teeny-tiny town and by all accounts we have no business being in cancer treatment – especially when we’ve got such a great (facility) only 45 minutes south.”
Brown said she could remember when her father-in-law had cancer 15 years ago. She said he had a brain tumor, and the only way to get treatment was to drive from Cedar City to St. George and back every single day. He was diagnosed during a particularly snowy winter, she said, and the back and forth daily excursions were really scary, and very long.
France said that, because of the nuclear testing in Nevada in the 1950s the downwind victims of radiation-caused cancers in Iron County had a strong need for a more local option for treatment.
The justification for a top notch facility in Cedar City became evident after an excessive number of cancer patients in the region were in need of quality, local care, France said. The proximity in location could mean the difference between a patient being able to receive care or not.
Before the center was built, Valley View Medical Center Media Relations Specialist Becki Bronson said, she knew of patients who were unable to receive care, simply, because the expense of daily trips to St. George was more than they could afford. It was devastating to doctors to have to turn away patients that they knew would die, she said, simply because they didn’t have the technology in Cedar City to treat them locally – which is why the Valley View board members fought so hard to build it.
Based on the obvious need, France said, Intermountain Healthcare informed Valley View that they would match each dollar raised by the local community, up to $1 million.
“So the board went out and raised money,” he said, “and they raised $1.6 million instead.”
Intermountain matched the entire amount he said, and the extra funds allowed the hospital to invest in much better radiation technology than they would have originally been able to afford.
The linear accelerator
Purchased in 2006, and updated in July, the radiation device used by Valley View Medical Center – the linear accelerator, pictured at the top of this report – is one of the most precise radiation devices available in medical technology today, France said. The model that the hospital was able to acquire, is one that allows Valley View to add on, and trade in, as technology advances through time.
On the tour, Brown said the room had changed since the last time she was in it, over a year ago, dropping new artwork off to the clinic. After her treatments were over, Brown had some of her Cedar Middle School students make tiles to donate to the clinic, because they meant so much to her when she had undergone radiation.
The machine is bigger, she said, or a different color – she couldn’t quite put her finger on what was different, but she knew it was something.
When the linear accelerator was updated in July, the cancer center added CT scanning arms to the machine so that every time a patient had a treatment, their tumor could be remapped, further improving accuracy, France said.
What makes this massive machine unique is the way that it targets the precise dimensions of the cancer tumor, Radiation Therapist and Certified Medical Dosimetrist Mat Cole said. The shape, location and size of tumors change often throughout the course of treatment and the linear accelerator allows technicians to deliver larger amounts of radiation to a precise location.
“You’ll see as I am rotating it, this upper number is called a gantry, and it can go 360 degrees,” Cole said, demonstrating how the machine can rotate entirely around a person to pinpoint the exact area where radiation would be required.
Brown said that, since the linear accelerator didn’t have those arms when she was a patient, she had to have a separate MRI to map her tumor before she could begin treatments, and then all of the information from the MRI was plugged into the machine. That information didn’t update as the tumor shrunk the way it does with the new technology added. The new arms are impressive, she said, and a further testament to the quality care she received when she was a patient there.
Cole said he has been working in cancer treatment for 12 years, and the accuracy advances made with the new technology has reduced the amount of healthy tissue destroyed during treatment. In return, patients are healthier – and, occasionally, patients endure fewer sessions than they would have, he said.
“In a nutshell, we can deliver a higher dose than we used to in years past,” Cole said.
Awareness and advances
October was Breast Cancer Awareness month. Since her experience with breast cancer, Brown said, she has become an advocate for the cause by planning fundraisers, and community activities, but she said that doesn’t feel like it’s enough.
“I think there is a lot of awareness about breast cancer,” Brown said. “Now we need to figure out what’s causing it.”
The technological advances available to current patients are just the beginning, Bronson said. The pioneering research being done by Intermountain Healthcare Southwest Region’s cancer genomic medicine program leader Dr. Lincoln Nadauld is going to change the way cancer is treated, she said.
According to an Intemountain Healthcare blog, cancer genomics looks at the cancer cells more closely to determine their germline status and the genetic errors that contribute to the tumor to find a more reliable and compatible medical treatment.
“For example,” Bronson said, “there was a gentleman who had stage 4 liver cancer and he was deemed untreatable; he met with Dr. Nadauld who mapped out his gene sequencing and found that a breast cancer treatment would be best to treat this patient.”
France said that these advances will lead to a whole new way of treating cancer patients, with more personalized care, in the not-so-distant future.
Editor’s note: This story was updated on Nov. 20 to show that Robyn Brown did not take the tour of the facility on the same day that she brought her students artwork to donate to the cancer center.
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