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‘We’re not putting up new walls, we’re actually putting in health care’: AHS given keys to Calgary Cancer Centre

Construction on the new Calgary Cancer Centre is complete, and over the coming year Alberta Health Services will be moving in equipment and staff in preparation for patients.

The province announced the handover from PCL Construction on Dec. 9, highlighting the journey that the $1.4 billion dollar centre has taken and what work still needs to be done to begin treating cancer patients in a little over a year’s time.

When it becomes fully operational in 2024, the centre will have 160 inpatient unit beds, more than 100 chemotherapy chairs, more than 100 patient exam rooms, 15 radiation vaults, space for wet and dry research labs, space for clinical trial and research labs, and five levels of underground parking with 1,650 stalls.

“We are making steady progress in preventing cancer and treating it more effectively, but the reality is the total burden of cancer continues to increase as our population grows and ages, and nearly half of Albertans will deal with a cancer diagnosis in their lifetime,” said Minister of Health Jason Copping.

“That’s why the Calgary Cancer Centre is so needed, and so important to not only to the city of Calgary, but to Southern Alberta and to our province as a whole.”

Minister Copping said that currently the province is able to perform near 70 per cent of cancer surgeries within the recommended time from specialists, and that the new Calgary Cancer Centre will help to meet the provincial goal of 100 per cent.

He said that in 2021, AHS had almost 800,000 cancer patient visits. That’s a 20 per cent growth from three years prior. In terms of cancer diagnoses, AHS said that it expected more than 21,000 in 2021, which is a more than 115 per cent increase from a decade earlier.

The centre was envisioned in the early 2000s under the Progressive Conservatives, and began construction in 2017 under the then-NDP government.

Centre has capacity for growth

Dr. Don Morris, clinical department head for Alberta Health Services, said that the Tom Baker Cancer Centre space was outstripped by demand just four years after it was renovated in 1999.

“What this building does allow though, is that it is built to a scale that instead of running out of space to treat people in three-to-four years as I mentioned with the Tom Baker, this is built for the future,” Morris said.

He said that over the past two decades, cancer treatment has become decentralized across many different hospitals and facilities, and that the new centre would allow those services—from lab work to clinical care—to be placed into one location for the betterment of patients.

“We are going to be an internationally recognized cancer centre,” he said.

The referral area for the centre will include the entire province, with the potential of re-starting halted agreements with parts of B.C. and Saskatchewan for those province’s patients.

“It’s not just about Calgary. It’s about making sure that we support our urban, rural, and remote citizens within Alberta,” Morris said.

Dr. Morris said that the expanded capacity of the centre would also address the changing way that cancer occurs in populations, and not just geographically. He said that as people live longer, it means that treating older patients with cancer requires different and more complex lines of treatment and support.

Upcoming months a lot of work to meet 2024 deadline for occupancy

He said that AHS would be undertaking a great deal of work over the next few months to prepare the centre for patients.

“We’re not putting up new walls, we’re actually putting in health care,” Morris said.

Among the challenges are the months-long installation of equipment, and then further months to calibrate.

“There’s a lot of equipment here that takes a enormous amount of time to actually commission, which is really fine tuning it from a safety and a treatment outcome point of view,” Morris said.

He said a big part of that will be installing the machinery in the radiation medicine program on the lower levels of the centre.

One of the unique ways that the new Calgary Cancer Centre is tackling this installation issue, alongside the eventual decommissioning of old equipment and removal is through multi-purpose skylights. These can be opened to allow cranes to lower equipment in, and raise equipment out of the heavily-shielded underground portions of the centre.

AHS will also be increasing recruitment and staffing to meet patient demands at the centre. Dr. Morris said that overall the staffing levels for cancer care have not been impacted as strongly as other parts of AHS, either through staff burnout or other related pandemic issues.

“Obviously, staffing is is a big concern… there’s no doubt that with a new building there will have to be growth,” he said.

“The workforce is tired, and we need to respect that. We need to be thinking about strategies to actually serve to recoup those losses, and I think the building actually is a great way to to actually be able to do, that especially in cancer.”

One the goals outlined by Minister Copping was to entice greater international attention to the centre in terms of getting clinical researchers that can work on novel therapies for Albertans.

“This will allow to bring in disparate aspects of aligned cancer into one house, and that creates synergies,” he said.

“It’s going to be one of the leading centres in the entire country, and quite frankly in North America and around the world, and to be able to attract people and researchers that enable us to try new therapy, I’m very excited about this.”