BY C.R. ROBERTS, The News Tribune
Cancer, beware. A new player has joined the fight.
The Puyallup Tribe of Indians has purchased the Seattle Cancer Treatment & Wellness Center, a Renton clinic owned by Cancer Treatment Centers of America. The tribe will move the operation to Fife.
The new facility — at the Trans-Pacific Trade Center at 3700 Pacific Highway E. — will offer traditional and alternative methods of treatment to native and non-native patients.
“If there’s any way to fight this disease, we’ll do it,” said Puyallup Tribe Chairman Bill Sterud during a recent tour of the building.
“This may be the most important thing I’ve been involved with,” said Alan Shelton, clinical director and a veteran medical adviser with the tribe.
“We’re not saying conventional medicine is no good,” he said. “We want to include that.”
According to the tribe, this will be the “first tribal-owned cancer care center in Indian Country and the United States.”
The facility will initially occupy part of the building’s first floor and will be known as the Salish Integrative Oncology Care Center.
As Shelton tells the story, Cancer Treatment Centers of America had been trying, unsuccessfully, to secure approval to build a hospital in the Puget Sound area.
The company contacted the tribe, Shelton said, with an idea to build a facility on reservation or trust land controlled by the tribe.
Shelton recalls something Sterud said during a tour of a CTCA hospital in Arizona some two years ago.
“We can do this,” Sterud said.
“I felt we could do it by ourselves,” Sterud said last week. “There’s always room for another place to fight cancer.”
The tribe will not reveal the price paid to buy the CTCA operation. Records from the Pierce County Auditor’s Office indicate the tribe bought the Trans-Pacific Trade Center in June 2014 for $11.9 million. The tribe has paid for the project with revenues from various tribal enterprises, including profits earned by the Emerald Queen Casino.
The tribe will host an opening ceremony April 7, and doors will open to patients April 13.
Treatments will be offered on an outpatient basis only and will combine traditional chemotherapy and other, alternative therapies.
“We have a strong ancestral bond with nature and creation,” Sterud stated in a news release announcing the center.
“We believe that natural healing through traditional roots, berries, herbs and traditional healing can blend with modern oncology practices. We are building upon traditional oncology — chemotherapy, radiation and other pharmaceutical treatments — with whole person integrative medicine, such as naturopathy, Native American treatments, acupuncture and Chinese medicine,” he said.
Kim Sunner, slated to act as administrator at SIOCC, said last week that many details are still being identified and solved.
“There’s a lot of things up in the air right now,” she said.
She said she expects perhaps 17 employees to join the Fife operation after working in Renton. Positions in Fife include physicians, naturopaths, nurses and nurse practitioners, and pharmacy workers, technicians and administrative support staff.
She said there has been outreach to current patients, including focus groups, and that the reaction has been generally positive.
She said the new clinic will likely be able to accept more insurance programs than were available to patients in Renton, and that contracts with insurance carriers were still being negotiated.
Shelton was in the Washington, D.C., area last week to discuss details with the Indian Health Service, and he said in a phone interview that he expected eligible patients would be able to use Medicare and Medicare coverage to help bear the cost of treatment.
For the tribe, the clinic will be a nonprofit enterprise, he said.
Sunner noted that as many as 85 percent of patients at the Renton clinic were living with a diagnosis of at least Stage 4 cancer. She said she hoped eventually to be able to provide care to patients living at all levels of diagnoses.
“I really hope we have the opportunity to serve patients at an earlier stage,” she said.
Subir Mukerjee, Fife city manager, said last week of the new clinic, “We welcome it. It’s a good medical facility in our community. Having a medical facility is always a good thing. It adds a mix of use, not just retail. It adds to easier access to medical facilities for our residents.”
The American Cancer Society, in the “Native American Healing” section of its website, says that “the communal support provided by this approach to health care can have some worthwhile physical, emotional, and spiritual benefits.”
“Although Native American healing has not been proven to cure disease, individual reports suggest that it can reduce pain and stress and improve quality of life. The communal and spiritual support provided by this type of healing could have helpful effects.
“Like other complementary therapies, Native American healing practices may be used in relieving certain symptoms of cancer and side effects of cancer treatment,” according to the website. “People with cancer and other chronic conditions should talk to their doctors before using purification rituals or herbal remedies.”
“We’ll have physicians working side-by-side with naturopaths, acupuncturists, traditional healers. These people meet as a team,” Shelton said. “We’re very interested in having not just the conventional medicine, but also spirit work. The team will refer patients needing radiation therapy or surgery to local hospitals or specialists.”
Osteopathic residents from the Puyallup tribal clinic might also rotate through the facility, he said.
“There’s just a general feeling that this is special, needed, wanted,” he said. “Everybody knows somebody who has suffered from cancer. If there is a better way, we want to explore it. We expect that in Indian Country there will be a lot of people interested in this.”
“With the success of our facility, I would hope to see other tribes join the fight against cancer,” Sterud said. “This is a head-on attack. It makes me proud. It makes me happy. It also makes me emotional. It might save a life, or two, or 1,200. If we save one life, that’s a giant success.”
Sterud said he sees the clinic as a tribute to other struggles, other “battles that our elders fought in years past. Our success is based on their endurance in dealing with adversity. It’s an honor to be able to bring a cancer treatment center to the public in their memory.”
“I’ve had this vision for a long time,” he said. “The tribal council has been nothing but supportive, and all the staff, and the membership. It’s almost like it’s been blessed. Everything seems to be working out.”