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Neighborhood cancer care

Rise in local facilities reflects new strategy, growing need

On a recent visit to the Joan and James Vernon Cancer Center at Newton-Wellesley Hospital, Sudbury resident Stanton Healy is examined by the facility’s clinical director, Dr. Jeffrey S. Wisch.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

Cancer treatment centers with links to the most prestigious hospitals in the state are springing up in suburban communities, a trend that experts say will allow area residents to receive top-notch care close to home at a time when more people face a greater chance of developing the disease.

On Thursday, UMass Memorial Health Care is scheduled to hold a groundbreaking ceremony for its $12.7 million Cancer Pavilion at Marlborough Hospital.

Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center plans to open a state-of-the-art $20 million cancer center in Needham in spring 2014. Those facilities are in addition to Newton-Wellesley Hospital’s $32 million Joan and James Vernon Cancer Center, which opened two years ago in affiliation with Massachusetts General Hospital, and the $25 million Dana-Farber/ Brigham and Women’s Cancer Center at Milford Regional Medical Center, established in 2008.


Also, the MetroWest Cancer Care Center in Framingham has been operating since 1987, and doctors at Children’s Hospital Boston at Waltham also treat cancer patients.

The proliferation of suburban cancer treatment centers reflects a new model of medical care, in which patients visit satellite offices near their homes for daily therapies, like radiation infusions, and cut down on trips to their hospital’s main campus in Boston or Worcester, authorities say. ‘

‘They’ll get their ongoing treatment at their community hospital, and then every several months they’ll go into the city and see a specialist,’’ said Randy Schwartz, senior vice president for Strategic Health Initiatives at the New England Division of the American Cancer Society. ‘‘Treatment is more ambulatory.’’

Bringing the care closer to patients makes sense medically, according to health care professionals, who cite the physical and psychological rigors that cancer treatments can involve.

Keeping transportation time to a minimum greatly improves the quality of life for patients as they combat the disease, doctors said.


‘‘Imagine sitting here in Dana- Farber for four hours getting chemotherapy and feeling pretty miserable when you leave, and then being stuck in traffic on Brookline Avenue or the Mass. Pike,’’ said Dr. Lawrence Shulman, chief medical officer at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. ‘‘It doesn’t make sense.’’

Needham resident Carol Bolton Kappel, who recently finished radiation and chemotherapy treatments after being diagnosed with breast cancer, said she chose to use Beth Israel Deaconess Hospital-Needham for much of her treatment precisely because she couldn’t bear driving into the city.

‘‘I started Aug. 2, and the chemotherapy was going to take me through late January,’’ said Kappel, 47. ‘‘I knew for several reasons it was going to be exhausting, and that I just didn’t want to go to Boston. The same quality of health care was available to me in Needham.’’

Convenience isn’t the only reason the suburban centers are opening. Even if patients were eager to brave Boston’s traffic, Massachusetts would still need additional medical facilities to handle the swell of cancer cases predicted for the near future, said Dr. Michael Blute, director of the Cancer Center of Excellence at UMass Memorial Health Care in Worcester.

Cancer already is the cause of one in four deaths in the United States, according to the American Cancer Society. Around 37,500 people in Massachusetts were diagnosed with cancer last year, the society reported. In the same period, nearly 13,000 people in the state died from the disease.

Those numbers are set to increase as the population grows older. The American Cancer Society reports that about 78 percent of cancers are diagnosed in people 55 or older — a group that’s exploding as baby boomers age.


In 2000, 35 million Americans were older than 65, Blute said. By 2030, around 72 million Americans will fit into that age group.

As more people live longer, more people are likely to develop cancer. The hospitals’ expansion into the suburbs is an effort to meet that need, said Blute.

‘‘There is a huge demographic wave change coming,’’ he said. ‘‘There is going to be more work for all of us, unfortunately.’’

Much of that work is expected to come as hospitals are under increasing pressure to cut costs and increase revenues, while also adapting to new federal health care programs that encourage larger, consolidated medical networks, experts say. The satellite treatment centers could boost patient numbers while also streamlining services, according to advocates.

Beth Israel Deaconess, for example, is moving some of its offices from Waltham to its new Needham facility.

‘‘Every health care provider should be looking at their services on a continual basis to say, ‘Are we offering the service in the best way possible?’’’ said John Fogarty, president of Beth Israel Deaconess Hospital-Needham.

Others warned, however, that the mushrooming of cancer centers could become the equivalent of a medical arms race in which institutions feel compelled to invest in expensive treatments and facilities in order not to lose patients to competitors. That won’t necessarily save significant money in the future, they said.


‘‘There is kind of a buying and building spree going on with a view toward creating these broader networks,’’ said Dr. Steven Pearson, president of the Institute for Clinical and Economic Review at Massachusetts General Hospital. ‘

‘Whether it’s going to be a good thing or a bad thing for the bottom line in terms of dollars, I think it’s hard to say.’’

Doctors say that, as an added benefit, the expansions will give patients and medical researchers a chance to take part in larger clinical drug trials. Recent scientific advances, often using genetic research, have yielded successful treatments for a variety of cancers. Doctors handling patients need connections with large research hospitals for access to the new therapies, while the big hospitals need more patients willing to try them.

‘‘Cancer medicine is changing pretty radically and pretty quickly,’’ said Shulman. ‘‘There are new therapies coming down the line all the time. Sometimes we have a new therapy every few weeks, not every few years. Oncologists can’t keep current as easily.’’

Happily, the successful therapies have led to cancer patients living longer.

‘‘Some of the survival rates are really good,’’ said Schwartz. ‘‘Breast cancer survivorship is at 90 percent. Prostate cancer is 99 percent. Colorectal cancer is up to 66 percent, but early detection will remove the cancer entirely. We’re making good progress.’’

But those survivors often also need help as they recover from cancer treatments and rebuild lives they put on hold while fighting the disease. Local treatment centers could be the best way to provide that support, said Dr. Jeffrey Wisch, clinical director of the Vernon Cancer Center at Newton-Wellesley.


‘‘What happens when undergoing therapy and what happens when you finish therapy?’’ asked Wisch. ‘‘Unfortunately, therapy is not easy, and there are a lot of psychosocial issues that we need to deal with. How are we going to reach out to the community and ensure we are providing those survivorship services?’’

It’s a problem Wisch would like to see more often. ‘‘The good news is we have far many more survivors today,’’ he said.

John Dyer can be reached at johnjdyerjr@gmail.com.