Rob Wiebe has seen both sides of the cancer treatment spectrum.
Since 1999, the 44-year-old Prince George firefighter has had three brain tumours, each of which necessitated radiation treatments in Vancouver, which until this fall was the most convenient location of a cancer clinic.
Now dealing with esophageal cancer discovered at the end of September, Wiebe no longer has to make long-haul trips for treatments. He can drive from his home in Pineview and 20 minutes later arrive at the B.C. Cancer Agency Centre of the North next to UHNBC.
The $91.5 million Prince George facility is the province's sixth cancer centre, joining Kelowna, Abbotsford, Surrey, Vancouver and Victoria. Built to serve 750 patients per year, the clinic and what it means to the people of northern B.C. is without question the story of the year in local health care.
"It's nice to be at home and do the radiation," said Wiebe. "It's huge for me and more so for my family because when I was in Vancouver the last time, in 2009, that was 7 1/2 weeks I was away."
While the Jean C. Barber Lodge was within walking distance of Vancouver General Hospital and offered Wiebe three meals per day, his lodging there carried a cost of $45 per day. Once the Kordyban Lodge opens in Prince George early next year, out-of-town cancer patients can apply for similar subsidized housing in Prince George.
Wiebe, a father of two teenagers, has had 25 bouts of radiation at the Prince George clinic, which opened Nov. 3, and over that same period has had weekly chemotherapy treatments.
"The new radiation area I found very nice and professional and they have some very good technicians there, the staff is excellent," said Wiebe. "It's convenient, I can drive down there, do my treatment, and leave. I've had a lot of support from work at the Prince George fire department. The biggest thing is being home with the family."
In 2009, the Prince George clinic was approved by the government, and construction began in 2010. Recruiting began immediately and key staff were hired years in advance of the Nov. 3 opening to build relationships with local physicians and create an immediate flow of referrals for patients awaiting treatments.
High demand for radiation treatments in the first month of operation prompted management of the facility to open the second linear accelerator ahead of schedule. The two accelerators are now available 6 1/2 hours per day and cancer centre staff have more flexibility to accommodate out-of-town patients. As many as half of the patients now being treated live two hours or more by car away from the city.
Marilyn Lichacz knows all too well the inconvenience of a full day's travel to a cancer clinic. For four years her husband Robert underwent cancer treatments in Vancouver for non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, a condition that eventually led to his death in January 2005. Prior to that, her mother also was forced to travel south for treatment.
After spending thousands of dollars on those trips, isolated from family support, in the fall of 2004 Lichacz started a petition to bring a cancer centre to Prince George, the last major city in B.C. to not have a regional treatment clinic in close proximity. Within six weeks,15,000 people had signed up, and the lists were presented to MLAs Shirley Bond and Pat Bell. Eight years later, the concept of a local clinic is now a reality.
"We just got on the bandwagon and I like to think it got started because of that petition," said Lichacz.
At the time Bond was handed the petition, in late 2004, she was serving as B.C.'s health minister. Bond spoke to surgeons in Prince George who told her they were performing an abnormally high number of mastectomies on women who chose the surgery close to home simply to avoid the travel involved to receive cancer treatments out of the city. Those types of conversations stirred political will, which gave the project considerable momentum.
Northern Health chair Charles Jago canvassed doctors and other health care professionals, conducted surveys at several northern B.C. medical facilities, and consulted patients and their families to show evidence which convinced government authorities and other stakeholders the need for the centre was undeniable.
Lichacz has yet to tour the new cancer clinic and hopes to one day hang a plaque in the building in honour of her husband.
"I'm glad to see it there, it's a beautiful building, but I wish no one would ever have to use it," she said.
"I'm just happy that northerners no longer have to be 500 miles away by themselves. It's family that will get you through something like this. If somebody from Vanderhoof is here having radiation, people can visit with them more often than if you were in Vancouver. You can come down on a Sunday morning and go home Sunday night."