Designed with patient needs in mind

For a lot of people, chemotherapy gives off a smell that can be sickly sweet, like body odor, and which can be nauseating.

A cancer survivor made that point to the design team behind UCHealth in Northern Colorado’s $11 million, 30,000-square-foot cancer center, now under construction at UCHealth’s Harmony Road campus in Fort Collins.

As a result, UCHealth moved the center’s treatment areas to the back of the facility, so that patients who are visiting for other reasons can avoid the unpleasant smell that some associate with chemotherapy.

The center is the product of well over a year’s worth of planning and research. It is being billed as a facility that will “raise the bar” on cancer care, with the latest technology, an array of clinical trials and some of the best thinking on caring for the emotional needs of cancer patients at its disposal.

Planning began with a series of conversations with cancer survivors, according to Kevin Unger, CEO of UCHealth’s Poudre Valley Hospital.

About 100 different voices all provided input into the way the building should be constructed, including patients, physicians and other employees. UCHealth relied on a “survivors’ wish list” for guidance.

One of the big goals of the center is to reduce the number of visits a patient makes to see various doctors. The average patient makes 100 trips to see a doctor in the first year after he or she is diagnosed with cancer. The center will work to reduce that number by having multiple services in one place, so that patients can save on trips.

In other words, while the nation’s more renowned cancer doctors may be found elsewhere, UCHealth’s new center will be as convenient and considerate to patient needs as any facility anywhere.

Here, the Business Report takes a closer look at the components of the cancer center.

TrueBeam STx linear accelerator

Among its cancer-fighting tools, the center will have a TrueBeam STx linear accelerator, widely accepted as the best tumor-zapper on the market, according to Dr. Josh Petit, medical director for radiation oncology services at UCHealth in Northern Colorado.

The $4 million machine can very specifically target tumors and deliver radiation while preserving surrounding healthy tissue, Petit said. The STx is an upgraded version of the TrueBeam, which is the current standard model. The department will receive an additional machine, a TrueBeam, in April, with a $3 million price tag.

The STx model has been in operation at the existing Cancer Center of the Rockies for nearly a year, and it will be a part of the new cancer center when it is completed in 2014. McKee Medical Center in Loveland is also home to a TrueBeam STx, according to its website.

In determining the success of cancer treatments, Petit says he takes into consideration two factors: tumor control and side effects. The TrueBeam’s “ultra-precise” radiation allows for the best possible outcomes in both of these areas.

UCHealth hasn’t just invested in its radiation oncology program by adding new equipment, according to Petit. The department has doubled in size both in terms of physical space and in staffing, and the total investment by the health system in the last year has totaled more than $10 million, Petit said.

The growth in the department was a bit like phase one of the new cancer center, Petit said.

Access to 60 clinical trials

The Oncology Clinical Research Program at UCHealth in Northern Colorado began in 1997 and has research enrollment rates that are triple the national average of 2 percent to 4 percent, according to Erica Dickson, research manager for the program.

The research program employs eight medical oncologists and two radiation oncologists, as well as 13 clinical research nurses and other professionals who help patients learn about, and become involved in, clinical trials.

The lack of an integrated facility has limited the program’s research capability, Dickson said, but the new cancer center will allow the research program to move to the next level by making it easier for patients to be made aware of the clinical trials relating to cancer research, prevention and treatment that are offered through the program.

As many as 60 clinical trials relating to cancer are under way at a given time, Dickson said, and the center’s multidisciplinary approach will help improve patients’ access to those trials.

Having a facility dedicated to cancer care will also boost the program’s odds when it comes to securing federal grants, Dickson said.

Emotional support for patients and families

While most of the focus on a cancer patient’s treatment is on that patient’s medical well-being, it is also important to support a patient’s emotional and mental wellness, according to Marianne Pearson, supervisor of clinical oncology social work.

A program focusing on these aspects has been up and running for about 18 months, and operates right now with three full-time staff members who travel between the system’s two hospitals, Poudre Valley Hospital in Fort Collins and Medical Center of the Rockies in Loveland.

The completion of the cancer center will likely see an increase in staff, Pearson said. One of the first things she did in her job was complete a community-needs assessment, Pearson said, and one of the most-requested items was oncology-specific counseling.

The program includes four support groups and has had about 1,000 patients referred to it since early 2011, according to Pearson.

Much like the new center’s other programs, the oncology social work program will be able to operate better under the same roof, and better emotional support should lead to better results, Pearson said.

“Without coping mechanisms, it’s much harder to recover (from cancer),” she said. “Often the focus is on practical treatments, but not emotional needs. Emotional health has been identified as necessary.”

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Molly Armbrister covers real estate, banking and health care for the Northern Colorado Business Report. She can be reached at 970-232-3139, or

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