Gundersen Health System Cancer Center Director Kurt Oettel, MD, told the story of a 62-year-old woman who faced the prospect of 2½-hour round trips to La Crosse for cancer treatment. It required 33 sessions of radiation therapy and “88 hours of windshield time.”

She declined the treatment.

Oettel hopes a new facility in Tomah will change that. Gundersen announced plans Thursday to build a 5,200-square-foot Comprehensive Cancer Center at the soon-to-be-constructed Gundersen Tomah Clinic. The facility will allow patients with cancer to receive radiation treatments in Tomah.

Construction is slated to begin next spring with completion in summer 2019.

“We are giving patients in Tomah and the surrounding area better access to cancer care closer to their home,” said Sarah Rossman, Gundersen Cancer Services administrative director.

Oettel said the woman he described is not unique. He said travel, even more than financial considerations, influences the decision to seek care. He said it’s common for patients to decide, “I can’t do that − I can’t be in La Crosse every day.”

“Unfortunately, we see too many patients who make that same decision ... because of the hardships of travel,” he said. “That is why we are here today to bring comprehensive cancer care to the Tomah region.”

Rossman said 100 Gundersen patients in the Tomah area required radiation treatments in 2016.

“Since most cancer patients receive treatments daily for up to nine weeks, patients in the Tomah area are driving approximately 100 miles a day, five days a week for nine weeks,” Rossman said. She said travel burdens “not only take a toll on our patients, but on their families.”

The cancer center will have a separate entrance and parking from the 77,000-square-foot Gundersen Tomah Clinic. Rossman didn’t have a cost estimate for the facility. She said it would employ at least two full-time physicians.

The clinic and cancer center will be constructed adjacent to the new Tomah Memorial Hospital, which broke ground in September and will be renamed Tomah Health. Oettel said the proximity of the new Tomah hospital is an important feature of the cancer center.

“Cancer in this day and age is no longer treated by a single individual,” Oettel said. “Cancer is treated by a whole group of people ... if you can put all those services into one hub, that is really comprehensive care.”

Gundersen CEO Scott Rathgaber, MD, said the collaboration with Tomah Health will increase the quality of care and ensure “we are not duplicating services.”

“We know there is a great need for this,” Rathgaber said. “The Comprehensive Cancer Center will bring care to patients when they need it, where they want it and with reduced driving times.”

Tomah Memorial Hospital CEO Phil Stuart welcomed the cancer center.

“We think this will be a great partnership, and it will add huge amounts of care to this region,” he said. “We are looking forward to this partnership to ensure patients throughout western Wisconsin receive the highest quality cancer care available right here in Tomah.”

Rossman said expanded services in Tomah will also benefit Gundersen patients in the La Crosse area.

“Our volumes have grown exponentially year over year,” she said. “This will allow us to grow without having to grow our facilities in La Crosse.”

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Tomah Journal editor

Steve Rundio is editor of the Tomah Journal. Contact him at 608-374-7785.

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