PENDLETON — Access to cancer treatment is coming closer to home for Eastern Oregon residents with construction of a new oncology radiation center underway.
Radiation Business Services, the Tennessee-based company in charge of planning and overseeing the project, held an informal groundbreaking event on June 18 and is eyeing a December completion date. The facility will be known as the Eastern Oregon Cancer Center at Pendleton and will be located on the almost 2-acre lot on Southwest 24th Street across from Rice Blakely Park.
Trip Leasure, the RBS vice president of project development and the Pendleton center’s project manager, was joined by Mayor John Turner and a number of other community members associated with the project for the groundbreaking event.
“It was great,” Leasure said. “Especially on relatively quick notice to get all the critical community members that helped get us to groundbreaking to be there.”
This April, Turner announced that he was free of throat cancer, which he had faced over the previous eight months. Though he was given as much as an 80% chance for recovery at the time of his diagnosis, the mayor had to travel nearly 40 miles to Walla Walla five days a week over the span of seven weeks to receive his treatments.
“I received excellent care,” he said. “But it would have been nice to not have to travel so far to get it.”
Thanks to the new center, Turner’s hope will become a reality.
“It’s a very nice addition not just for the Pendleton community, but for those to the south and east as well who will no longer have to travel out of the region,” he said.
Some of the other “critical community members” in attendance on June 18 included Harry Geller, president of St. Anthony Hospital; Tim Simons, Pendleton’s city engineer; Dr. John McBee, a longtime advocate of bringing specialty health services to the area; and Dr. Cindi Holmes, the radiologist at St. Anthony.
The center will be located down the street from St. Anthony Hospital and will use its imaging capabilities to compliment its treatments.
“It’s been a collaboration with them,” Leasure said. “They’ve been very helpful in establishing that connection.”
As for the oncologist who will staff the facility, Leasure said that they are in negotiations and plan to announce a hire in August.
RBS announced its plans for the center at the end of last year, and after its completion, it will become the fourth center the company has developed. RBS already operates two facilities in Alaska and another in Oklahoma.
Though the center will hold its grand opening sometime in January 2020, it hopes to welcome its first patients in December. RBS has a history of quick turnarounds on its development projects. At its center in Juneau, Alaska, the first patient was treated six months after its groundbreaking, the same proposed timeline for the Pendleton facility.
RBS was formed in 2010 by a group of physicians and targets rural communities with the goal of eliminating long distances that people must often travel to receive cancer treatments.
“We were excited to find an area like Pendleton where we can make a real impact,” said Denise Gerlarch, the company’s vice president of business development and marketing.
As of June 28, Leasure said the project has secured roughly two-thirds of its local investors. The project is also working with a newly formed nonprofit organization, which will be called the Eastern Oregon Cancer Network, and satisfies another goal set by RBS at the project’s onset.
The nonprofit is designed to help collect and distribute funds to patients at the new center, specifically to assist those who must travel and make overnight accommodations in the area for their treatments.
RBS will work in conjunction with the Eastern Oregon Cancer Network to host an event at the unfinished facility at noon Sept. 7. With construction stopped for the day, the event, titled “Written in Stone,” invites community members to write their names along with motivational or encouraging messages on the walls of the building’s unfinished vault.
The idea is for patients at the center to see the names and messages of those who have undergone treatments themselves, or who know someone who has, so that they feel the support of the entire community behind them, Gerlach said.
While RBS turned to its usual source of Alaskan-based Denali General Contractors for the project, Leasure said construction has been subcontracted to local and regional companies. Simons, Pendleton’s city engineer, confirmed that nine different locally based companies had been contracted for the project.
The company’s prior experience in rural development projects has made things smoother for the city as well.
“What’s been really enjoyable about working with them is that they’ve done this before in other places,” Simons said. “They were very prepared and very knowledgeable. There’s been no hand-holding.”
In general, Leasure, who has been accepted as a member of the Rotary Club since the project’s announcement, said communication and collaboration within the community has been robust.
“People have done anything and everything I’ve needed,” he said. “The community has really opened up.”