It was mid-morning on a Wednesday. A couple of staff members sat behind desks talking on the phones to prospective patients. In the waiting room next door, a patient's family member received a free massage. Just outside the office, a few people milled about the lush garden filled with trees and a waterfall. Smiling faces greeted all who walked down the hall.
For 13 years, the Ben Schaffer Cancer Institute has been a place where many go for healing, both physically and then emotionally.
Named after a prominent Lodi business and civic leader, the Institute has provided the community with a holistic approach to cancer treatment for patients on a daily basis. The Institute provides its patients with state-of-the-art radiation treatments to beat cancer, as well as massages and a serene garden atmosphere.
Making a choice
David Robinson is thankful he didn't go with his first impulse, which was to go to Mexico for an experimental procedure. He isn't sure he would have survived if he had gone that route, he said.
The Acampo resident was diagnosed with prostate cancer in December 2010. After exploring several options, a friend referred him to Ben Schaffer.
He met the Institute's physician, Dr. Travers McLoughlin, who greeted him with a hug instead of a handshake. At that point, the decision was settled, he said.
"I immediately felt I was in very trustworthy hands," he said.
The decision on whether to use radiation depends on each cancer, the type as well as the stage, said McLoughlin. It also depends on what the patient prefers. Since older patients may not want surgery, they may choose radiation instead.
For Margaret Simmons, radiation was the third step in fighting her cancer. After her diagnosis of breast cancer in November 2008, she underwent surgery and then several months of chemotherapy.
Her next step would have been to have radiation treatments in Stockton. But the 86-year-old knew about the Ben Schaffer Cancer Institute from her brother, who had been seen there. At her request, she became a patient and was immediately welcomed by the staff, she said.
"At the end of chemo, you are all shook up. This was the last straw, but there was not one speck of fear after meeting the staff," she said.
The Institute was started 13 years ago by Dr. Harvey Gilbert and his wife. It was then named in memory of Ben Schaffer, a prominent Lodi resident who had died from cancer.
A benefit for the community
"It was an asset for the community. There was no other radiation therapy available in Lodi," said Maura Leglu, the clinic coordinator.
Cancer patients come in Monday through Friday for six to seven weeks at a time. Some come from places as far as Stanislaus or Amador counties. There are around 25 to 30 who come in daily, said McLoughlin.
The staff at the Institute use five radiation methods to treat all kinds of cancers. Lung, breast and prostate cancers are the most common.
The most frequently used treatments are the intensive modulation radiation therapy or 3D conformal radiation therapy. The IMRT uses computer-controlled X-ray accelerators to deliver precise radiation doses to a tumor. The 3D-CRT creates three-dimensional representations of the tumor for precise delivery of radiation beams to the exact site of the tumor.
The radiation interacts with water in the cells and produces free radicals, which damage the cell's DNA, said McLoughlin. The cancer cells are less efficient than normal cells at repairing this damage and ultimately die.
Although Simmons says their cancer treatment methods are among the best things about the Institute, it's not just the state-of-the-art machines that make them exceptional. For her, it's more about the way the staff makes the patients feel important. When they can tell a patient is tired, they will give them a hug, she said.
"They can read your feelings. You can feel their concern for you," she said.
A typical radiation treatment will take from 15 to 20 minutes in the X-ray room, which is called the vault. The patient lays on a table at the linear accelerator, a machine that directs high-energy rays from outside the body to the tumor. Before a patient goes through treatment, the staff explains the process through videos, said Simmons.
"They are so loving and kind. They help you in anyway making sure you are comfortable," she said.
Periodically, the doctor checks the skin for burns. If there are any, the doctor may prescribe a cream or may even suggest a break in the treatment to let the wound heal.
After the treatment part of her visit, the staff would offer a massage, Simmons said. Sometimes, when the weather was nice, the massage would take place outside in the garden, where she could relax with the water and trees.
The massage therapy is offered to patients and their families for free to help reduce the stress cancer treatment causes them, said McLoughlin.
"We provide it because we feel it's better for them physically and emotionally," he said.
Simmons believes the holistic approach is what helps set the stage for their inside treatment.
"It's relaxing. The people who do the massage, they are very talented and friendly and it feels so good," she said.
Robinson said he felt wiped out both mentally and physically during this treatments. He spent a lot of time in the garden area listening to the waterfall. He also enjoyed the relaxation of the massages.
"When your body has been run down, to have someone pick you up with relaxation is wonderful. Mentally, you can only do so much," he said.
The success rate for treatments vary by the type of cancer, but it has been increasing over the years, said McLoughlin. Treatment of prostate cancer, for example, now has a 90 percent success rate.
Robinson is one of those successes. He has been in remission for six months. The radiation knocked everything out of him, but he has made a comeback and feels 100 percent better, he said.
"The c-word is pretty terrifying, and even the easiest one to cure is very frightening. I put my life in their hands because I figured they knew what they were doing," he said.
Making friends for life
Both Robinson and Simmons enjoy the family-type atmosphere at the Institute. Simmons, who has been in remission for three years, still comes back to visit. She and the staff members still write notes back and forth.
"They made you feel like you were a part of their family. It's an ongoing, caring institution," she said.
Robinson built friendships with two other men who went through treatment alongside him. The three still meet there every Wednesday just to catch up.
An added bonus is the reserved parking that is right outside the gate, said Simmons. When energy is such a big concern for patients, not having to walk two blocks for a treatment is beneficial.
"When you can park within 20 feet, how can you beat that?" she said.