"I felt so proud to be the first chemo patient at the new Centre. It was so beautiful. The doctors, nurses, everyone was so passionate. You could see pride in their eyes. You still can," says Antonio who was diagnosed with colon cancer in 2002. It metastasized to her lungs and she is on long-term treatment, receiving chemo every other week at the Centre, which is located in her hometown of Prince George.
Since opening its doors five years ago, the Centre has seen thousands of patients with all types of cancer. Yet Yolanda says she's always been made to feel like she's part of a community; a testament to the patient-centred approach embraced by the staff at BC Cancer.
"When I had my 100th treatment, the staff celebrated. There were balloons and banners. They called me a hero. I thought: I don't want to be sick, I don't want chemo, but I am very lucky. All of this compassion, it gives you hope. I feel at home here."
Centre for the North opened its doors November 1, 2012, after two years of efficient construction that saw the 5,000-square meter facility built on time and on budget. Its LEED Gold certified design reflects local cultural values: the main entrance made in traditional Lheidli T'enneh First Nations' architecture; a circular spiritual care room, and a Healing Garden filled with traditional plants.
A state-of-the-art interior design creates efficient staff flow and resource sharing for optimal patient care. The Centre opened with two linear accelerators for radiation therapy, a chemotherapy unit, a pharmacy and general outpatient clinics. Renovations were also made to the adjacent University Hospital of Northern B.C. to accommodate an oncology unit and expansion of pathology, laboratory and diagnostic imaging services.
Now, with more than 120 staff and 55 volunteers, Centre for the North also offers a number of innovative services including gynecologic brachytherapy, 3D printing for customized radiotherapy accessories, novel imaging techniques, speech language pathology, a nutrition program and clinical trials. Patients receiving radiation have increased from 423 in 2013 to nearly 600 in 2016.
Patient and family counselling services has also had an increasing presence at the Centre, providing support for both emotional and practical concerns, running a number of group sessions for everything from memory, attention and sleep disorders to financial resources and Greif 101. There's also a part-time counsellor focused solely on the needs of indigenous patients.
With the Centre situated on the territory of 54 First Nations, central to its development has been the evolution of an indigenous support program.
"Centre for the North has gone above and beyond to address many of the challenges to accessible cancer care closer to home for many indigenous communities," says Preston Guno, who has been Director of Indigenous Cancer Care at BC Cancer for the past three years. "From installing indigenous artwork, to smudging and brushing ceremonies, there has been genuine interest in leading the way toward culturally safe care. We have a long journey, but we're taking the right steps."
According to Dr. Stacy Miller, one of the first radiation oncologists at the Centre, now it's Medical Director, has made an especially important difference in the lives of patients that require palliative care, those whose cancer is incurable and painful. Prior to the Centre opening, many would choose to cope with symptoms that could otherwise be helped by palliative radiation, opting not to travel in order to stay close to family and friends.
She also highlights the Centre's Telehealth program that is now reaching more patients closer to home in remote northern communities via interactive multimedia technology. Some patients are as far as a 12-hour drive away, in Dease Lake, for example. "Telehealth helps us reach and connect with patients to help them understand why it might be necessary for them to make the trip to Prince George," she says, highlighting one virtue of the service. Last year there were 2,600 Telehealth appointments at the Centre, up from 769 in 2012.
"The simple answer to what makes our Centre special is the spirit of its people — from the can-do attitude of staff and Northern Health colleagues, to the gratitude of our patients and their families — you can feel it when you walk in the door. It's why I'm still here five years later." says Miller. "But we couldn't do this alone." She emphasizes the support the Centre receives from Northern Health Authority and BC Cancer's provincial office.
Dr. Rob Olson, the first physician hired at the Centre and now also its Research lead and for the Northern Medical Program, notes how the Centre has offered the community substantial benefit in research and teaching.
Over the past five years, Centre for the North's small but productive research department has accrued more than 250 patients into clinical research studies, published more than 60 research papers in academic journals and has secured over $4-million in research grants and contracts. Staff have also provided 2,500 teaching hours in oncology clinical services, have trained more than 100 medical students, residents and fellows and more than 30 research students.
Dale Arnott is one patient who's benefited from innovative treatment options offered through clinical trials at the Centre. Diagnosed with squamous cell carcinoma of the tonsil in May 2016, he underwent seven weeks of radiation and three rounds of chemo at Centre for the North. That cancer went into remission, but not before metastasizing to one spot in his lungs. Dr. Olson offered for him to take part in a clinical trial at the Centre using stereotactic ablative radiotherapy, or SABR, to treat his solitary lung metastasis. After four treatments of SABR over one and half weeks, Dale's cancer has been in remission for the past nine months.
"A lack of services is at the forefront of your mind when you live in the North. To have a facility like this, with that high calibre of service and incredibly innovative technology is simply amazing," says Dale. "And to receive this kind of care from people that don't just understand cancer but also what it's like to be a northerner —people that offer you hugs when you come back for treatment —it's hard to say just how important that was to me. Centre for the North is truly a special place."
To learn more about Centre for the North, visit http://www.bccancer.bc.ca/our-services/centres-clinics/centre-for-the-north