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Treating cancer closer to home

Southeast's first radiation oncology center to open in December

Posted: August 24, 2013 - 11:08pm

A new 4,500 square foot facility will soon make treatment a little bit easier for Southeast residents who’ve been diagnosed with cancer.

Dr. John Halligan came to Alaska about six years ago after serving in the Army. He’s currently the medical director for radiation oncology at the Providence Cancer Center in Anchorage. While completing medical school at the University of Washington, Halligan said he’d occasionally see patients from places like Sitka or Petersburg.

“It’s not something I had even thought of. Those of us from mid-sized cities in the Lower 48 all have access to this kind of care,” Halligan said. “I’d been seeing these patients (at UW), but I didn’t see the need until I got up here.”

Halligan, along with Dr. Jamie Blom of Anchorage, opened a radiation oncology center in Soldotna earlier this summer. Now it’s Juneau’s turn.

“Our goal is for people to stay here and get the exact same level of care that they would get in Anchorage, Seattle or Portland,” Halligan said. “We’re bringing in truly wonderful technology and I am extremely impressed with Dr. Huang.”

Dr. Eugene Huang will be the main physician for the Juneau clinic. He went to the Baylor College of Medicine and completed his residency at the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. Halligan said advances in technology are making the new clinics possible.

“The remoteness (of Alaska) does make this challenging, but once you find the right people, you can make it work,” Halligan said.

Halligan said having radiation therapy services available in Juneau would also help patients with terminal conditions deal with pain.

“I think that will be one of the biggest benefits,” Halligan said. “If you have end-stage cancer and other issues and traveling is very difficult, typically we have to bump up pain medications. We can now do some radiation and not have to increase their medications.”

The new center is something Juneau resident Ginger Johnson is thrilled to see.

Johnson has spent thousands of air miles fighting cancer. Her husband, former legislator Rick Urion, died in 2008 after battling colon cancer for three years. Two years later, Johnson was diagnosed with breast cancer. Johnson knew that she didn’t want to travel all the way to Seattle for treatment; she’d already been through that with her husband.

“It was so painful for him to get the radiation he needed to have to prolong his life. It was very hard for both of us,” Johnson said. “When you’re ill and you’re trying to travel, I can’t tell you what great effort it takes to pull yourself together enough to go through the practical things of getting packed, going to the airport and on the plane.”

For six weeks, Johnson traveled to and from Anchorage. She’d get on the Monday flight at noon and immediately have her treatment that day. She’d stay for the week, getting treatment every day and then leave on the Friday afternoon flight so she could make it back to Juneau for the weekend.

“When you’re ill, more than anything, you want to be home,” Johnson said. “I’m very passionate about having this for Juneau because I’ve been there.”

Members of the community are invited to the new center between 2 p.m. and 5 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 25. There will be a large concrete wall for people to write messages to future patients. Johnson said she’d be at the event.

“I am absolutely overjoyed that cancer patients will be able to receive radiation treatment here,” Johnson said. “I think it makes all the difference in the world.”

• Contact reporter Jennifer Canfield at 523-2279 or at jennifer.n.canfield@juneauempire.com.

Correction: Dr. Huang will be the main physician for the Juneau clinic only, not also for the Soldotna clinic as previously reported. 

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