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Chemotherapy, radiation and art

Herbert-Herman Cancer Center takes humanistic approach to treatment


Is it perverse to look forward to tearing down a building that’s not even finished yet? Not if it’s Sparrow Hospital’s glassy, curvilinear Herbert-Herman Cancer Center, due to open July 11.

“Will we be able to get rid of buildings like this? I hope so,” said Dr. James Herman, medical director of Sparrow Hospital’s Cancer Center. Herman is entitled to say that, because his name is on the place.

Herman and his wife, Susan, and James Herbert, CEO of the Neogen Corp., and his wife, Judith, donated a combined $2.5 million to the new facility, which will replace the cramped cancer center in Sparrow’s main hospital across the street.

The facility has state-of-the-art linear accelerators for radiation treatment, a “war room” where teams of doctors can map out treatment and a patient-centered design graced by countless human touches, large and small.

The number of cancer patients in mid- Michigan is expected to grow in the short term, but Herman took a minute during a tour of the partially completed facility to take a longer view.

Treatment is moving toward individualized molecular and genetic tools that Herman hopes will replace what he calls “MOAB” (Mother of All Bombs) forms of treatment such as radiation and chemotherapy.

“It’s going to be at least, I would say, 10 to 20 years,” he said. “After that, it depends on the science.”

Until then, however, the Herbert- Herman Cancer Center will fill a growing need with a graceful, humanistic approach. Herman and other Sparrow staffers gave reporters a tour of the building May 4.

“The mid-Michigan area is not growing, but it is aging,” Herman said. “We anticipate more cancer, going forward, and according to the statistics, we have space built in for growth.”

As we toured the airy atrium, a worker on a high platform was stringing dozens of wires overhead, getting ready for a hundredpiece hanging sculpture by Lansing glass artist Craig Mitchell Smith. The central plaza outside will feature a 20-foot-high glass and metal sculpture by Herb Babcock.

Plentiful art, inside and outside the building, is one of several strategies used in the center to calm a visit to a place that is the epitome of stress and anxiety.

Instead of being tucked into a labyrinth of halls, most patient services are close to the entrance and the welcoming atrium. Staff offices and labs are relegated to the west wall, with unspectacular views of the parking structure.

“We tried to provide the shortest path from the patient from their arrival to treatment — 10 or 20 steps and you’re in a room, seeing your provider,” the planning and design director, Staci Bakkegard, said.

In the heart of the facility, two Electa Versa linear accelerators will deliver high doses of radiation with pinpoint accuracy. One is new and one was being moved from the existing cancer center. Sparrow is hoping to add a third by the end of the year.

One of the two hulking machines was already in place May 4. With its looming overhead hardware and capability for lateral and longitudinal movement, it looks like a drill press from Alpha Centauri.

Herbert joked the machine is “about $5 million better” than Sparrow’s old one, purchased about three years ago, owing mainly to its precision.

“Everything moves,” Herbert said. “You can do all kinds of things you can’t do with a stationary, fixed geometric system. You can spare the spinal cord and treat all the cancer around it.”

Bakkegard pointed with pride to the normal-looking glass and wood door to the vault.

Many linear accelerators have thick, vault-like doors that block radiation but make patients feel like they’re entering the Crypt of Terror.

“It doesn’t exactly calm you before your treatment,” she said.

Instead of a big door, thick walls block the radiation. An undulating, textured “art wall” hides the wall’s formidable thickness of 3 feet.

The walls are made of high-density concrete blocks that are easily disassembled to get machines in and out as technology changes.

On the second floor, in a sunlit, spacious infusion area, patients will sit for prolonged periods of intravenous treatment. A maze of low partitions and textured glass break up the space.

“We don’t want you to feel overwhelmed and walk in here and see 40 chairs full of people,” Bakkegard said.

Each patient has a reclining chair with a reading light, a TV and pillow speaker. Outside the window is a cheerful view of a green roof that covers a part of the linear accelerator’s concrete bunker one floor below.

While getting radiation treatment, a patient can pick out soothing nature scenes and ambient light projected on an overhead screen.

Herman said the patient-centric touches, including the art, are not just for show.

“A lot of people pooh-pooh things like art, imagery and religious aspects of care, spirituality and everything,” he said. “But data shows that if you provide that environment, add all the extra things beyond the sharp definition of treatment, you actually have better patient outcomes in terms of survival.”

The expansion will also strengthen Sparrow’s ties with experts at the Mayo Clinic and allow room to grow a vigorous clinical trial program where newer treatments are tested. Over 100 trials are now under way at Sparrow’s cancer center — the largest clinical trial program in the state, according to Herman.

Herman is thrilled with all the new space and cutting-edge technology and improvements in design, but his deepest hope is that the whole shebang will become obsolete as soon as possible.

When Herman began treating cancer 30 years ago, he said, the cure rate was about 30 percent, compared to about 70 percent now.

“That means the cancer is gone and they die of something else,” he said. “You don’t hear about that 70 percent. They carry on and live their life. It’s a revolution.”

Advances in cancer treatment of cancer at the level of molecular genetics are next.

“It’s much more individualized, much more targeted,” Herman said. “You don’t need a lot of space to administer that kind of treatment.”

While walking out of the infusion area, Herman explained that building a facility for a fast-changing field such as cancer is like shooting at a moving target.

“Most medical oncology therapy, besides chemotherapy, is switching over to immunotherapy and oral oncolytics,” Herman said, referring to tailored viruses that attack cancer. “So people who are building huge infusion centers are probably going to regret it.”


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