Keep Your Eyes on the Prize

Now only thing I did was wrong
Staying in the wilderness too long
Keep your eyes on the prize, hold on

The only thing we did was right
Was the day we started to fight
Keep your eyes on the prize, hold on

Popular American Civil Rights Anthem

When the provincial government unveiled the design for the new Calgary Cancer Centre last month, it was arguably the most significant moment for southern Alberta’s cancer community in a generation. The new centre will reportedly have twice as much space available for clinical trials and for patient treatment as the aging Tom Baker Centre now has. Construction of the facility at the Foothills Medical Centre, which is already Alberta’s largest hospital complex, will start later this year.

PCL Construction Management Inc. was awarded a $1.1 billion design-build contract for the cancer centre. Stantec in conjunction with DIALOG, will ultimately be responsible for the architectural and interior design of the new cancer centre, as well as structural and electrical engineering. Stantec will also provide civil and transportation engineering expertise.

newcalgary-cancercentre

​The new facility will be located at the northeast corner of the Foothills campus. It will span more than one million square feet. The design includes a 1,650-stall underground parking garage and a 984-linear foot elevated walkway connecting it with other parts of the Foothills campus.

Services at the new cancer centre will include:

  • outpatient cancer clinics
  • more than 100 patient exam rooms
  • 160 inpatient unit beds
  • more than 100 chemotherapy chairs
  • clinical and operational support services
  • double the space for clinical trials
  • research laboratories
  • 12 radiation vaults
  • double the capacity to treat patients with the best technology

“What this building allows us to do is really integrate care across the cancer continuum and integrate cancer research and education within the cancer care delivery model,” said Dr. Sunil Verma, the medical lead for the new facility.

Verma said that with one in three Albertans expected to be diagnosed with cancer at some point in their lives and a five per cent growth rate each year, the existing Tom Baker Cancer Centre will soon be stretched beyond its capacity.

calgary-cancercentre

Premier Rachel Notley (left), Associate Minister of Health Brandy Payne, (centre) and cancer survivor Susan Cardinal examine a 3D model of the future Calgary Cancer Centre that will soon be under construction.

Personally, I’ll miss the iconic Tom Baker Centre, but I look forward to the opening of a desperately needed new building. Like the majority of patients undergoing treatment at the Baker Centre I have mixed feelings regarding my experience. I’m definitely impressed by the top-notch care I’ve received from the dedicated staff and volunteers. However, I’m alarmed by the all too obviously crowded quarters. On my visits I find it impossible not to notice how filled to capacity the building is—I’ve been subjected to the overflowing parking lot, the busy chemotherapy beds and the standing room only waiting areas.

The Tom Baker Cancer Centre has been serving men and women diagnosed with cancer for approximately a generation now; it opened its doors over 30 years ago in the early 1980s. At the time, Albertan’s marveled at the spacious and innovative new facility. There was incredible pride in the centre by those involved in its creation. The building had been meticulously designed to provide cancer care for Calgary’s population of 600,000 and the rest of southern Alberta. What is more, the new Baker Centre had cutting-edge technology, a first-rate young staff and space, an abundance of space.

I can imagine what it was like for those involved, because the sense of joy and anticipation among patients and their loved ones is once again palpable. It’s a sweet victory, we’ve waited over a decade and withstood the disappointment of several broken promises to build a new Calgary cancer centre. I can’t be certain what my future will bring or what role the new cancer will play in my life. But with construction scheduled to begin in just a few months, and completion planned by 2023, I definitely feel as though I have my eyes on the prize.

 

The Crusade For a New Cancer Centre

simulatorAs I struggle through this cancer journey, I’m sincerely grateful to have access to some of North America’s top oncologists and cancer surgeons and to be offered cutting-edge treatment options. Calgary’s Tom Baker Cancer Centre is consistently ranked among the top ten treatment and research facilities in Canada. Despite its level of success, there is undeniable evidence that the venerable centre is showing its age and needs to be replaced. Politicians and health officials acknowledge that the building itself ran out of space approximately a decade ago. This isn’t surprising considering Calgary’s surging population. Add to this the fact that our demographic is changing and more people have reached a time of life when they are most at risk for cancer.

Like the majority of patients undergoing treatment at the Baker Centre I have mixed feelings regarding my experience. I’m definitely impressed by the top-notch care I’ve received from the dedicated staff and volunteers. However, I’m alarmed by the all too obviously crowded quarters. On my visits I find it impossible not to notice how filled to capacity the building is—I’ve been subjected to the overflowing parking lot, the busy chemotherapy beds and the standing room only waiting areas.

The Tom Baker Cancer Centre has been serving men and women diagnosed with cancer for approximately a generation now; it opened its doors 31 years ago in the early 1980s. At the time, Albertan’s marveled at the spacious and innovative new facility. There was incredible pride in the centre by those involved in its creation. The building had been meticulously designed to provide cancer care for Calgary’s population of 600,000 and the rest of southern Alberta. What is more, the new Baker Centre had cutting-edge technology, a first-rate young staff and space, an abundance of space.

While the centre’s first doctors once pondered how exactly they’d fill all the new space available to them, today’s oncologists, nurses and technicians grapple with cramped offices, crowded reception areas and patients lining the hallways waiting for treatment. Tom Baker has had four medical directors since 1981. The current medical director is Dr. Peter Craighead, who has been in the role for six years. “ I think all of us are concerned,” Craighead recently told reporters. “Our caregivers are pretty stressed by the lack of space, the lack of ability to grow.”

On March 1, 2013, the Alberta government took a fundamental step to address these issues and announced plans for a new cancer centre to be built in Calgary. “We know the need for cancer care will continue to grow, and we need a facility to increase capacity and improve patient care,” said Premier Alison Redford at the press conference. “This state-of-the-art facility will be a hub for cancer care for Calgary and southern Alberta.”

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Alison Redford and Health Minister Fred Horne

“The Tom Baker Cancer Centre has served Alberta well, but it was never designed to meet this level of demand,” added Health Minister Fred Horne. “This new facility will ensure services are integrated for more effective and seamless patient care, and will also maintain Alberta’s place as a leader in cancer research and education.”

Obviously this long awaited news has generated absolute delight in the staff at Calgary’s Baker Centre and in the approximately 19,200 patients that are currently undergoing cancer treatment in Calgary. The announcement has given many a reason to be cautiously optimistic that the Alberta government will fulfill its promise this time. There have been assurances in the past of a new cancer centre, only to have the project shelved when government funds were not made available. I agree with advocates who believe there is no alternative anymore but to replace the aging Tom Baker Centre, at least if we are to continue to provide first-rate cancer care in this city.

Baker Centre construction

The Baker Centre was expanded in the 1990s.

I expect that this time those in power are ultimately going to follow through because of the absolute urgency of the project. Also, the details that have been made public are more specific than in the past. The Alberta government has agreed to partner with the Alberta Cancer Foundation, which has already committed $200 million toward the project. According to the latest reports the province is still committed to the new centre. They’ve promised to spend $160 million over the next three years—including $20 million this year—to get the project up and running. While the province originally said that it expected to get started on construction in 2015, it’s now indicating that work on the colossal $1.3-billion facility won’t get underway until 2016.

An opening day for the centre is currently pegged for summer 2020. One thing is guaranteed; it will take a lot of collaboration and mutual resolve before Calgary’s new ultramodern cancer centre finally comes to fruition. Of course, the Alberta government and the Alberta Cancer Foundation must lead the way, but the philanthropy of private individuals and the generosity of Calgary’s corporate community will also perform a crucial role.

Meanwhile, the oncologists at the Baker Centre have informed me that if I continue to stay in remission until 2017 they will consider my therapy finished. In due course, their plan is to place me back into the care of my family doctor and gynaecologist. There will be no more need for regular checkups or treatments from cancer specialists, and I will essentially be declared cancer-free. My ultimate dream is that this extraordinary moment will occur, and that it will occur for thousands of patients after me in Calgary’s brand new state-of-the art cancer centre!

Inside The Tom Baker Cancer Centre

50eb27d44683b9c588386c68616fI’ve been a patient at Calgary’s Tom Baker Cancer Centre for over two years now, but it’s occurred to me that I haven’t presented a detailed description of southern Alberta’s primary cancer treatment and research facility in my blog. Perhaps I was waiting for the perfect time to focus on this topic in The Teal Diaries, and since my next scheduled appointment at the centre’s outpatient clinic is in approximately one week, writing down some of my thoughts and feeling about the building and its dedicated staff seems highly appropriate. Prior to my cancer diagnosis I had virtually no knowledge of the Tom Baker Centre. Like most people in Calgary I was aware of its location and had observed it numerous times at the sprawling Foothills Medical Centre, however I had never actually been inside the building. Every time I saw the five-storey cement structure, I hoped I would never be required to enter it. The very name “Baker Centre” would set off a wave of powerful thoughts and emotions—in my mind I identified it as a place where cancer patients went to receive treatment, and sometimes to die.

My first time inside was on a cold, dark November morning. Since it was my initial assessment the team of oncologists had scheduled me early, before anyone else. I still remember how terrified I was and how unexpectedly quiet and peaceful everything seemed to me at that hour. My mother and I were essentially the only ones present in the waiting room of the gynecology clinic. Soon I was having a detailed conversation with a nurse about my medical history, naturally there was an emphasis on any family history of cancer. Next, I was examined by one of the Baker Centre’s top pelvic cancer surgeons, Dr. Prafull Ghatage. Following my examination, my mother and I were assembled in one of the Baker Centre’s conference rooms with Dr. Ghatage and a team of other physicians.

The seriousness of my situation began to register as I looked across the table at four of five white-coated medical professionals. Dr. Ghatage explained that he wanted to perform surgery as soon as possible. This news was overwhelming, especially since I had just undergone a total abdominal hysterectomy three weeks earlier that had resulted in a cancer diagnosis. “I just had a hysterectomy and now I’m dying of cancer,” I tearfully blurted out. “You’re not dying, I’ll inform you if you are dying,” a voice immediately responded. These rational words jolted me back to reality, and before we left I signed a consent form for a laparotomy—a specialized procedure in which abdominal organs are removed, biopsied or repaired and a definitive diagnosis can be made.

Baker Centre buildingAll gynecologic cancer surgery and subsequent recovery actually takes place on Unit 42 B in the Foothills Hospital, but I was back at the adjacent Tom Baker Centre approximately two months later. This time it was to have the necessary follow-up chemotherapy. It was at this point that I began to realize how self-contained, busy and efficient the renowned Tom Baker Cancer Centre is. First my mom and I attended one of the centre’s chemotherapy orientation sessions. It included a tour of the daycare unit where specialized nurses administer powerful anticancer drugs to a steady steam of patients. About 90 patients a day receive treatment in 39 daycare treatment spaces, some of the spaces feature beds and some have reclining style chairs. Naturally, I was apprehensive when the day arrived for my first cycle of carboplatin; I was scheduled for six cycles with each treatment 21 days apart. Of course, I’d been warned about the inevitable side effects including fatigue, weakness and nausea. It was also predicted that my hair might become thinner, but that I probably wouldn’t lose my shoulder length bob completely. As a precaution, I had it cut into a much shorter pixie style.

I can laugh now, but I was rather worried that some of the veteran chemotherapy patients might be able to tell that I was a newbie. They would ascertain that I looked too healthy and had all of my hair! When I arrived for my first session, I noticed that the people around me seemed to have many types and stages of cancer—what is more, a good number of them exhibited full heads of hair. After a short wait, a nurse led my mother and I into the Baker Centre’s large daycare treatment area. My heart beat faster as we reached my assigned space and I settled into a recliner by the window. The nurse explained what she was doing as she inserted my IV line and then attached some anti-nausea medication in preparation for the potent cancer-fighting drug, carboplatin.

Chemotherapy IV

Somehow the hustle and bustle of the busy daycare area had a calming effect on me, as did being in the presence of the staff and so many other patients. I left my first chemotherapy appointment extremely impressed by all that the Baker Centre does to make the procedure less stressful and more comfortable for each patient. I’ll never forget being offered coffee, tea and cookies by one of their devoted volunteers. Having been through treatment, I can appreciate how incredibly challenging it is for the team to meet the individual needs of thousands of men and women diagnosed with cancer. I was later astonished to learn that there were 20,100 chemotherapy appointments at Calgary’s Tom Baker Centre in the 2010-11 fiscal year. In my next blog post I’ll discuss some of the issues as the centre struggles to keep up with an ever-increasing demand for its services.