By KATIE MORITZ - JUNEAU EMPIRE Published October 10, 2014
Haines breast cancer survivor Denise Hart has traveled across the country in her journey to be cancer-free. Without any treatment options in her hometown, she went to Texas for a mastectomy after her diagnosis in April.
After the surgery, she went to Juneau for a doctor’s appointment and to figure out her treatment plan. Her doctor introduced her to Eugene Huang, the radiation oncologist who runs Juneau’s Southeast Radiation Oncology Center.
It was the beginning of a beautiful relationship, she said. Instead of traveling elsewhere for radiation treatments, she made the decision to commute via seaplane to Juneau twice a week for a month to be treated at the center.
“I chose that because of Dr. Huang and him helping me so much ... He walked me through all the equipment and everything that would be used and he was basically my inspiration to have it done down there,” Hart said. “It’s a wonderful facility; I can’t say enough good about that ... And if it was to recur I would do it down there in Juneau again.”
Hart is one of a good portion of cancer patients treated at Southeast Radiation Oncology Center who come from Southeast Alaska communities outside of Juneau, including Haines, Sitka, Yakutat and Petersburg. About a fourth to a third of Huang’s patients aren’t local, he said.
The center opened late last year and has so far treated 58 people, Huang said.
With the help of the center, “cancer care overall in Juneau has certainly grown a lot in the just the last year,” Huang said. Between Huang’s radiation treatment and the Juneau doctors who do chemotherapy, “now patients have a pretty wide range of options,” he said.
Now, local cancer patients can get every kind of cancer treatment — surgery, chemotherapy and radiation — done locally, Huang said.
“All the physicians in Juneau, they’re very collaborative,” he said. “We like working with the hospital.”
Despite the center’s success, Huang plans to keep the staff “small and efficient.”
“All four of us see all of our patients every single day,” he said. “We get to know them extremely well.”
Hart finished her last radiation treatment in late August. She said the center’s small staff was “wonderful and warming” and made the emotional process bearable.
“You’re not a number there, you’re an actual person, and they treat you so nicely and they’re very accommodating,” she said. “They make you comfortable, they help you any way they can. They’re right there with you if you’re feeling anxious or if you’re feeling uncomfortable. They make the whole experience wonderful.”
Juneau breast cancer survivor Lynn Bartlett said she got through the ordeal of cancer by staying positive and keeping her sense of humor intact, but being able to stay in town for her radiation treatment helped, too. Bartlett underwent daily, 20-minute radiation treatments for four weeks at Southeast Radiation Oncology Center. She had her final treatment Thursday.
“The type of cancer I’ve got was very strange, very rare, very aggressive,” she said. “Having done the travel for the chemo treatment, doing radiation at home is fantastic.”
Because of her rare form of cancer, Bartlett had to undergo special chemotherapy in Seattle. After her treatment, Bartlett’s hair began to fall out. Instead of being sad about it, she threw a head-shaving party with her family at her beauty parlor, she said.
“All my kids and my grandkids, we went in and served Champagne and gave out chocolate-covered strawberries and shaved my head, and had an absolute blast,” Bartlett said. “That’s how I’ve more or less approached my treatment or my cancer: Find the humor in it, wringing your hands and ‘woe is me’ doesn’t do anything for anybody.”
Bartlett shared a word of advice for Juneau women.
“Get your mammograms, do your self examinations, don’t mess around, get it checked,” she said. “We have a wonderful health care network here in Juneau — take advantage of it.”