At least once every month — sometimes every week — Lana Carouba travels from Lodi to the University of San Francisco for cancer treatment.

She’s been doing this since she was diagnosed with brain cancer nine years ago.

“Oh, it is stressful, especially because traffic is very unpredictable, so that 90-mile drive could be three hours,” she said in a video created by the Lodi Memorial Hospital Foundation. “So then you’re late for one appointment, then you’re late for the next appointment. It’s nerve-wracking. There’s nothing easy about it.”

Her chemotherapy treatments last about six hours, and leave her sick and exhausted, she said. Then it’s back in the car to go home.

When Lodi resident Edyth Ledbetter was diagnosed with cancer, she had her treatments — including surgery — at Stanford University.

“We continued going to Stanford for 13 years,” she said in the video.

They’re just two of many Lodi residents who have to travel miles away from Lodi to receive cancer treatment.

The Lodi Memorial Hospital Foundation is working to change that.

Their new Catch It Early campaign is raising funds to localize cancer treatment with a three-pronged approach: 1. Purchase new diagnostic equipment to catch cancer earlier; 2. Convene a local panel of specialists in cancer treatment to review each local case and suggest a treatment strategy; and 3. Appoint someone who can help patients understand and navigate the process.

The foundation hopes to replace the MRI at Adventist Health Lodi Memorial’s Advancing Imaging Center, install a cutting-edge CAT scan and a stereotactic biopsy machine, and throw in the 3D computer-aided detection (CAD) software needed to maximize the effectiveness of the new tech.

The new CAT scan will offer 128-slice, high resolution imaging — a huge step up from the hospital’s current 64-slice equipment.

The current MRI was a great piece of equipment when it was purchased in 2000, Dr. Grant Rogero, medical director of radiology at Lodi Memorial, told the News-Sentinel on Thursday.

“The 2000 Camrys were good cars,” he added. But they don’t compare to modern cars, and the current MRI needs to be replaced with a more modern version, too.

The new MRI will be larger — a 70-centimeter tube rather than the current 60-centimeter, according to Tim Karagounis, director of imaging — and will have a sound system, making it more comfortable for patients, too.

The stereotactic biopsy machine will allow doctors to use a three-dimensional rendering of breast tissue to guide a biopsy.

“We take (image) slices throughout the breast and produce a 3-D image,” Rogero said.

The new machine will offer nine slices — images of nine layers of tissue — versus the current two.

And the CAD software uses machine learning and artificial intelligence to help doctors spot abnormalities in 3-D mammography scans.

The upgraded equipment will turn Adventist Health Lodi Memorial into top-notch cancer diagnostic center. The hospital hopes that this new equipment will help doctors catch cancer much earlier, when it’s easier to treat.

There are 1,800 new cases of cancer every year in San Joaquin County. The most common diagnoses are breast, colon and prostate cancer. Caught early, those cancers and a few others can be treated locally, for the most part, at Lodi’s Ben Schaffer Cancer Institute, Stockton Oncology or Lodi Memorial.

It won’t just be useful for cancer diagnosis, either.

The hospital’s current CAT scan in the emergency department sees about 60 patients a day, few of them actual emergencies.

“This will take the outpatient load off that,” Rogero said.

The goal is to catch cancer at stage 1, said Wayne Craig, CEO and president of the LMH Foundation. At that point, most cancers have a 90 to 100 percent survival rate over five years, he said. By stage four, the odds are a lot slimmer.

The Lodi Memorial Hospital Foundation plans to have the equipment in place soon.

“We’ll have it up and running by the end of the year,” Craig said.

They’ve already met with General Electric, the company that produces and maintains most of Lodi Memorial’s imaging equipment. The order is ready to go.

All that’s needed is funding, Craig said. The price tag will come to about $2.6 million — but that’s not just for the equipment, which is only one part of the foundation’s three-pronged strategy to keep cancer patients close to home.

The foundation also plans to create a local cancer panel, which will work to determine whether patients have treatment options in San Joaquin County.

Coming up with a plan of action to fight cancer used to be a lot more complicated.

“In the old days, you’d bounce around between specialists,” Craig said.

Back then, it could take a while to develop an action plan with that delay in communication.

Nowadays, most cancer treatment centers have a cancer panel. Within two weeks of a patient receiving a cancer diagnosis, a group of doctors gather for a meeting — one day, one time — to look over test results and imaging and pound out a strategy to fight the disease.

Ledbetter met with such a panel as part of her treatment at Stanford University.

“All the doctors came in together, and they hand-mapped out a plan of treatment for me,” she said in the foundation’s video.

Lodi Memorial will have a cancer panel of its own soon. The panel members will change depending on the patient’s needs, but will generally include their primary care physician, an oncologist, a radiologist, and specialists related to their type of cancer.

This one-stop treatment plan will help cut down on travel time and expense for many patients.

One patient told Craig she’d driven more than 10,000 miles back and forth to Stanford University in a single year. Some patients simply can’t afford that, he said.

Having a local panel means the doctors can direct patients toward local treatment options, when they’re available.

For complex, rare, advanced or very aggressive cancers, patients will still need to go to the Bay Area or Davis for at least some of their treatment, but the cancer panel will ensure people aren’t having to make that drive needlessly.

The third part of the new program is a patient navigator — a coach who will work with each patient, walking them through the process, helping them decipher the various treatment options, and answering basic questions about care, pain management, and how to break bad news to loved ones.

The prospect of better diagnostic tools, local treatment options and day-to-day guidance has local cancer patients excited.

“To have the level of care that either UC Davis or UCSF has in Lodi would be unbelievable. It would be so much calmer, smoother, easier, because it’s really, really, really an awful situation to be in. So it would make all the difference in the world,” Carouba said in the video.

The LMH Foundation is asking the community to get involved. Area residents can donate at their website, or pitch in at events like Walk for the Health of It, Summerfest and the Dr. Russell B. Steele Memorial Golf Tournament.

Funds raised at this year’s Walk for the Health of It next month will go toward the stereotactic breast biopsy machine.

All donors will be recognized on a plaque at the Advanced Imaging Center, and donors who pledge $50,000 or more will be recognized as sponsors where the equipment is located. Donors will also be recognized on the website and on social media.

The foundation has pledged $2.1 million of the $2.6 million needed to fully fund the program. They’re asking Lodi residents to chip in for the remaining $500,000.

“This will literally save lives in Lodi,” Craig said.

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