October 23, 2009

The UNM Cancer Center-Las Cruces is Here to Stay


Since January 2007, the University of New Mexico Cancer Center, our State’s Official Cancer Center and one of the nation’s 64 premier National Cancer Institute-Designated Cancer Centers, is proud to offer cancer diagnosis and treatment services in our UNM Cancer Center-Las Cruces, in collaboration with Memorial Medical Center. Despite recent media reports and community concern, we are not scaling back our commitments to Las Cruces and Southern New Mexico. We are in Las Cruces to stay.

Before 2007, more than 600 patients diagnosed with cancer each year in Las Cruces and Southern New Mexico had to make a long drive to our “hub,” the UNM Cancer Center in Albuquerque for cancer treatment, sometimes driving back and forth three to four times a week to receive life-saving or life-extending therapy and spending all too precious family resources on gas, food, and lodging. In 2006, recognizing that many New Mexicans had inadequate cancer treatment in their communities and were underserved, we began to build a UNM Statewide Cancer Care Network and to develop collaborations with local community hospitals to find ways to best serve the 8,000 New Mexicans around our vast and beautiful state diagnosed with cancer each year. Our first focus was the Las Cruces community and since 2007, we have been thrilled and proud to be of service to the people of Southern New Mexico. Our UNM Cancer Center-Las Cruces not only provides outstanding cancer diagnosis, but also medical oncology and chemotherapy infusion, and the most advanced radiation therapy in the region within the MMC – Ikard Radiation Oncology Center, an integrated component of our Las Cruces program. These treatment programs are being linked by the web and telemedicine to programs in Albuquerque, providing our UNM doctors on the ground in Las Cruces with access to the more than 80 cancer specialty physicians at UNM. Both UNM and MMC have invested tens of millions of dollars in new equipment, programs, and staff to ensure that our Las Cruces Center is of the highest quality and is state of the art. Las Cruces should expect nothing less. Indeed, the new Tomotherapy Radiation Oncology unit installed in the Ikard Center in April is an achievement that should make all Las Crucans proud. This most advanced radiation treatment machine is only the second one to be installed in New Mexico and the Southwest region, the first being located at UNM Center in Albuquerque. These continuing investments are a testament to both UNM and Memorial Medical Center’s intent and long term commitment. The UNM Cancer Center is also very proud to have strong collaborative programs with NMSU in cancer research, supported for many years by the entire Las Cruces community through Cowboys for Cancer Research (www.cowboysforcancerresearch.org) and Aggies are Tough Enough to Wear Pink (www.pinkaggie.com). Together these organizations have raised millions of dollars, more than any other cancer fund raising organization in our state, for joint NMSU-UNM research projects that are producing new treatments and cures for breast cancer.

But, just like it is very hard for a cancer patient to have to drive four hours each day for cancer treatment, it is hard for the UNM Cancer Center in Albuquerque to manage the day-to-day, on-the-ground operations across its collaborative statewide network. In a move to increase the operational efficiency in our network and better serve our patients across the state, we undertook a detailed review of our clinical operations with the goal of continuing to strengthen our programs to ensure that we could continue to provide our patients with outstanding care close to home. As a result of that review, we determined that the best way to grow and stabilize our statewide network was to change our care model, allowing our community collaborators, like Memorial Medical Center, to have more responsibility and authority over the day-to-day operations. We have made this same change in our Santa Fe site and in other statewide sites as well. Just as it is today, the UNM Cancer Center will still provide outstanding cancer doctors who, along with their families, will continue to live and work in the Las Cruces and other communities. UNM will continue to provide certain key staff, overall medical direction of the oncology program at MMC, access for our patients to cancer trials and innovative therapies, collaborative community outreach programs, and access to all of the physicians and staff at the UNM Center in Albuquerque. This change isn’t about making money; goodness, over the past three years, we have invested so much in these programs that we have lost money every year. Our primary objective is to be of service to all of our patients. And that means all, including those who are underserved, under-insured, and un-insured. That is a primary mission of UNM and MMC. Indeed, of the 64 NCI-Designation Cancer Centers in the nation, UNM is only one of three that allow under-insured or uninsured patients to get in the door. We are proud of this mission and it is not going to change.

As we have been working to change our model, we are also undergoing a transition in our physician staff at the UNM Cancer Center-Las Cruces. We know that like any change, this raises concerns in the community and among our patients. We apologize for any stress or worry that we might have caused, but rest assured that we are continuing to provide the “A team” from our world-renowned physicians to ensure quality care for our patients. The existing 5,300 square-foot UNM Cancer Center-Las Cruces remains open and our patients are continuing to receive the most advanced treatments in the compassionate and caring environment that they have come to expect. While one of our doctors, Dr. Warren Alexander, unfortunately resigned to accept a position in Texas, Dr. Katie Rasila, who originally founded our Las Cruces clinic and who is being reassigned to our Albuquerque Center, is still providing care in Las Cruces. Dr. Rasila is being joined by some of our very best cancer doctors from Albuquerque, Dr. Richard Lauer, Dr. Amy Tarnower, Dr. Teresa Rutledge, and Dr. Ian Rabinowitz, who are driving back and forth every few days between Albuquerque and Las Cruces, instead of our Las Cruces cancer patients having to drive! UNM is also actively recruiting two new cancer physicians who will live permanently in Las Cruces. We have interviewed several outstanding physicians to date, and they have already visited with members of your community, and its churches and schools, and have been very impressed. We hope to announce these new physicians very soon and we hope you will welcome them and their families to your community.

In closing, while we are certainly not perfect, we are committed and we will always try to do our best. We have been thrilled to be a part of the Las Cruces community and we aren’t going away. If you have any questions, please do not hesitate to contact us at (505) 272-4946. So, go Las Cruces and go Aggies! And that is coming from a Lobo kind of girl.

Cheryl Willman, M.D.
Director and CEO
The University of New Mexico Cancer Center

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