Originally published October 8, 2018 on WhatcomTalk.com.

In 2013, Dennis Lancaster wasn’t sure he’d survive. Diagnosed with stage 4 metastatic melanoma, the Whatcom County resident was initially given just 10 months to live. There were tumors up and down his spine, and cancer had spread to his lungs and liver. When Lancaster first walked into the PeaceHealth St. Joseph Cancer Center for treatment, he was scared. Before his diagnosis, he’d viewed the center as a sad place where people often went to die.

But five years later, the 73-year-old sees things differently.

“I love this place,” Lancaster says. “This is life. It’s not death. It’s a great big team of people who are very synergetic. They’re together – for you – to make sure you survive.”

Under the care of the center’s medical oncologists, Lancaster underwent 10 weeks of radiation to target the tumors. It was fairly effective, but for further treatment, through the center’s clinical trial program, Lancaster became the first person in Bellingham to receive a new, experimental drug undergoing studies in Seattle.

The results were transformative: his cancer is now dormant, not advancing or retreating. He has taken the drug for the last four years. Five months ago, he stopped. So far, the cancer hasn’t resumed activity. Aside from extreme fatigue and mood swings, side effects have been minimal. Lancaster’s current doctor, Robert Raish, MD, tells him he’s making medical history as one of the most-closely watched recipients of the new drug.

The PeaceHealth Cancer Center seeks to provide a healing and inspirational environment for cancer patients and their families. Photo courtesy: PeaceHealth.

Lancaster now visits the cancer center monthly to see Dr. Raish, get blood drawn and have his chemo port cleaned. Every three months, he has a CT scan. So far, things are good. Lancaster gives credit to his faith in God, getting the right treatment and the cancer center staff. The latter, he says, was critical in how he approached his cancer journey.

“This place is a God-send,” he says. “I’ve gotten to know every nurse that’s here in this building, from radiation to infusion. They are my family.”

Genuine Care

The PeaceHealth St. Joseph Cancer Center opened in December 2012, providing integrative and collaborative cancer treatment under one roof.

Gurpreet Dhillon, the center’s director, says the facility has about 80 full-time staff members. There are radiology and medical oncologists, physicians, their assistants, radiation therapists and over 30 nurses. In addition, the center has an on-site nutritionist and chaplain. They also have volunteers to help patients with various logistics during treatment.

The center also provides a host of holistic therapies to provide patients with a healing environment, from massage and meditation to yoga and Tai Chi. The facility, tucked into the back of the PeaceHealth St. Joseph Medical Center campus along Squalicum Parkway, is surrounded by trees and flowers. There are stone pathways, benches and even a fountain outside. Inside, locally inspired artwork seems to canvas the walls at every turn. Dhillon says that, to some, it feels like it’s not even a healthcare facility.

The Don Haggen Hospitality Center provides patients with a host of comforts, from a warm blanket to a bag of Cheetos. Volunteers help ensure patients get what they need. Photo courtesy: Matt Benoit.

In addition to all this, the cancer center has an onsite lab setup, patient resource center, patient financial advocates to ensure patients understand costs and financial assistance, and more. The fact these services are all found so close to home is icing on the cake.

“We want to be able to provide excellent care for patients close to home,” Dhillon says. “This is a hard-enough process as it is, and for someone to have to travel far from where they live, in a time when they feel vulnerable about their health … that’s challenging.”

Lancaster, who avoided having to make long drives to Seattle for treatment, is quick to let others know they don’t have to go far for the treatment they need.

“Everything is centrally located,” he says. “This is like a little gem, tucked away in the woods.”

Strong Relationships

Dennis Lancaster and nurse Kristy Thom pose for a photo during Lancaster’s monthly check-up and blood draw. The bonds that form between patients and staff members are often strong. Photo courtesy: Matt Benoit.

The recurring nature of cancer treatment often allows patients to develop tight-knit relationships with the medical professionals who care for them. When Lancaster and his wife decided to discontinue his drug treatment, Lancaster was distraught. But not over what you might think.

“I didn’t get upset over the fact I was stopping treatment,” he says, holding back tears. “I got upset with the fact I wasn’t going to see my nurses. It sounds corny, but it was true.”

Prior to Lancaster’s first treatment, a nurse volunteered to pray for him. Whenever he wanted to talk spirituality, the chaplain was always close at hand.  At every turn, Lancaster says the genuine care he received made a world of difference. It was also a big positive for Bonnie, Lancaster’s wife of 38 years.

“I can’t say enough good about them,” she says. “Knowing that he was in such good care is a big relief. It takes some of the weight off the caregiver or spouse’s shoulders.”

Lancaster and his wife still see their favorite nurses during monthly check-ups. Bonnie often bakes cookies when they visit and Lancaster buys flowers to return the love he’s been given over the years.

The couple also gives credit to the great communication methods provided to them whenever a concern arises. Lancaster’s access to the MyPeaceHealth patient portal allows him to send email-like messages directly to his doctor. He can also call a direct number to speak with a chemo nurse any time of day, receiving reassurance or direction, including whether or not an ER trip is needed.

Kristy Thom, a registered and oncology-certified nurse, is quick to point out how personal cancer treatment is for both patients and staff. Thom has had patients tell her their chemo sessions were the social highlight of their week. She’s seen groups of older men schedule treatment together, just so they could shoot the breeze.

PeaceHealth St. Joseph Cancer Center offers hope and healing. Photo courtesy: PeaceHealth.

“I never dread coming here,” she says of a job filled with both joy and grief. “I’ve learned so much from so many people. I’ve learned how to make my garden awesome because I have patients who are master gardeners, and that’s what we talk about for two hours every three weeks.”

Although staff and patients may come from diverse walks of life, Thom says it’s the disease they fight that brings and binds them together into something more than mere strangers.

“Cancer doesn’t have any boundaries,” she says. “It doesn’t matter how much money you make, what ethnic background you are, what age you are. It affects everybody.”