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Alberta brings radiation therapy to new centres, alleviating the stress of travel for cancer patients

As Alberta’s population increases, so does the need for patient access. As a pre-emptive measure, Alberta Health Services is making accessibility for cancer patients a top priority by introducing three additional radiation therapy centres to south, central and northern Alberta, meaning that making the trip to Calgary or Edmonton for treatment is no longer the only option.

“Ultimately, our main goal is to improve access for people,” explains Brenda Hubley, an Alberta Health Services employee based in Lethbridge who has seen the forward-thinking idea morph very quickly into reality.

For cancer patients seeking radiation therapy, this ability to access treatment close to home brings much relief. Since the provincial and federal governments collaboratively pinpointed “improved access” as a priority, the idea for new cancer centres moved towards development soon after the 2007 proposal. When all three radiation treatment facilities are fully operational, it will mean patients can eliminate long drives to undergo treatment.

Lethbridge, Red Deer and Grande Prairie will soon have the capacity to deliver up 80 per cent of the radiation treatments that patients in these areas require.

radiation centre
SOUTHERN TREATMENT: The new radiation centre in Lethbridge, at right, means patients don’t have to make the long drive to Calgary.

“It basically creates what we call a corridor of treatment in five different sites [in Alberta],” explains Hubley, who is the project lead for the radiation therapy corridor project and site administrator with the Lethbridge Cancer Centre. “This will be the first time that radiation therapy is offered outside of Calgary or Edmonton.” By reducing travel time for patients, the primary goal of the project is to improve both access and care. “We’re also always trying to improve wait times,” says Hubley.

Sharon Strachan knows what it means to have help close to home. The 53-year-old mother of four boys has gone through breast cancer diagnosis, surgery, chemotherapy and now radiation, all in the span of eight months. “We were on holidays in Mexico, that’s when I found the lump,” Strachan says. “I knew as soon as I felt it, I’m a registered nurse.” The discovery didn’t just cut her holiday short, but it put her life as she knew it completely on hold. “You hit a wall. I’ve lost my blissful ignorance that I had before my diagnosis.”

Since starting radiation therapy, Strachan has been making the hour-and-a-half drive to the new Lethbridge Cancer Centre five days a week, for six weeks in a row. Renovations to the centre were completed in June 2010 and this included additional radiation services for breast, lung, prostate and gastrointestinal cancers, as well as palliative treatments. “I’m so thankful that they opened the centre in Lethbridge,” says Strachan, who would otherwise be making the three-hour trip to Calgary where she would have to stay for a week. “Less driving is less tiring. It’s been a huge benefit.”

For patients in north and central Alberta, radiation services will soon be more accessible, too. The Red Deer-based facility is expected to start accepting patients as early as 2012. The Red Deer centre will be equipped with outpatient clinics, a medical day unit, pharmacy services and various other support services. “This will be a new building, connected to the existing hospital,” says Hubley.

Heading north, the Grande Prairie radiation centre remains in the preliminary stages, but is expected to host the first of two radiation vaults in northwest Alberta, accommodating about 600 patients every year who would otherwise have to travel to Calgary or Edmonton facilities. Construction for the facility will begin sometime in 2011, according to Health and Wellness Minister Gene Zwozdesky.

RED DEER RENDERING: When complete, this new facility in Red Deer will serve patients in the central part of the province.

In addition to destroying tumours, radiation therapy can also help patients with more advanced cancer to manage their pain and other symptoms. “Forty-eight per cent of patients could benefit from radiation therapy,” says Hubley. In 2005, 6,800 patients received radiation therapy in Alberta and, according to evidence based on best practice standards, that is only 67 per cent of projected utilization rates. Based on the total courses of radiation diagnosed that year, there should have been 10,100 patients receiving radiation therapy in Alberta. “Patients in the past have elected to opt out of treatment,” says Hubley. “But with the three new sites, we’ll be able to take the pressure off of Calgary and Edmonton.”

Strachan says that no matter how far she would have had to go, opting out of treatment was never an option. “Think of treatment as your life insurance, sure it might give you side effects, but I just hope that it ensures your longevity,” she says. Despite the disease, she remembers her time in Lethbridge fondly. “I will truly miss them [the staff],” Strachan says. “They’ve made this whole experience completely bearable. There aren’t enough words to express how grateful I am to them.”

The number of people affected by cancer is expected to double in Alberta within the next 10 years, a looming statistic that warrants the corridor project. Today, the average patient receives care within four weeks of being ready to treat. Wait times may improve and the time spent travelling will be greatly reduced as well. “The response has been very positive so far,” says Hubley. “Patients are thrilled with getting the opportunity to stay closer to home.”

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