By Carly Harrington
Saturday, January 18, 2014
When Joe Hamby was diagnosed with prostate cancer early last year, the owner of a medical staffing firm started doing his research.
He talked with his doctor, searched the Internet and went to a support group for prostate cancer survivors.
“It seemed like the ones smiling the most were the ones who had gone through proton therapy,” he recalled. “This approach seemed to be the option with the fewest complications and the highest success rate.”
At the time of his diagnosis, Hamby had never heard of proton therapy, an advanced radiation treatment that uses a single beam of high-energy protons to target various forms of cancer.
This week, Hamby will be among the first five prostate cancer patients to be treated at the Provision Center for Proton Therapy in the Dowell Springs Business Park off Middlebrook Pike. More than 20 patients are signed up to start treatment in the center’s first month.
Since getting state approval to build the $119 million facility three years ago, businessman Terry Douglass and his team at Provision Health Alliance have been steadily working toward Monday, when Provision becomes the 13th proton treatment facility in the country and the first in Tennessee.
“It’s exciting, but I think more than anything I feel that we’ve been able to develop this for the community and the community has been very responsive,” Douglass said. “We’re on schedule. We’re on budget. We couldn’t be more thankful for all of that, but there’s still plenty to do.”
The facility will expand its cancer treatment capabilities in the spring and fall when additional rotating gantries come online. The devices will allow Provision to treat a wider range of tumors, including breast, lung, liver, pancreatic, brain and pediatric cancers.
Unlike traditional radiation treatment, the highly precise proton therapy leaves surrounding tissue unharmed and reduces treatment-related side effects, said Dr. Marcio Fagundes, the center’s medical director.
For example, in prostate cancer the proton beam can be selectively deposited with minimum exposure to the bladder and rectum. For breast cancer, it can target the left breast without having the heart be exposed to unnecessary radiation.
Because many patients are done after just a month of treatment, it becomes less expensive or costs the same as traditional radiation treatment, which typically takes twice as long to treat, he added.
Patients have treatments five days a week for four to eight weeks that take about 15 minutes each.
“It’s painless. There are no immediate side effects like nausea or vomiting. Patients can continue their normal activities,” Fagundes said.
Hamby, for instance, said he plans to go to work after coming in for his first treatment at 8:30 a.m. Tuesday.
Still, some health insurance providers are limiting treatment coverage or not covering it at all for prostate cancer. While Medicare covers the treatment, Douglass said he’s working with carriers on what the reimbursement will be.
The next phase of the Provision campus will include the addition of a welcome center and 40-unit lodge for overnight patients and their families.
The hope is to start construction later this year, said Bill Hansen, Provision vice president of business and strategic development. It will be built on vacant land in front of the proton center.
Eventually, the plan is to build a community center, an extension of the nearby wellness facility that would include a pool, and a training facility for the medical community.
While less than 50 percent of the center’s first patients will be coming from out of town, the expectation is that the center will draw patients from all over the Southeast, said Nancy Howard, vice president of Provision CARES Foundation and Center for Proton Therapy patient services.
Providing a comforting environment for those out-of-town patients is a top priority.
Former patients, who have been treated by proton therapy elsewhere, like Gordan Webster, will serve as ambassadors, offering information and inspiration, Howard said.
In addition to a staffed hospitality manager in the lobby of the center, there will be organized patient programs, including lunches, dinners and patient socials to introduce them to different parts of town and surrounding communities.
“If people come from out of town, they will be less likely to venture out. The purpose is for them to get to know Knoxville and East Tennessee,” Howard said. “We’re very fortunate this is a very welcoming community, and I know the patients will feel that.”