SALT LAKE CITY — As he prepared to break ground on a facility that is expected to bring an advanced cancer radiation treatment technology to the Intermountain West for the first time, 16-year-old Jonah "Haakon" Albaugh had a fleeting moment of uncertainty.
Asked if he was prepared to turn dirt with the back hoe he was sitting in, Haakon replied with a youthful honesty that betrayed his nervousness: "I hope I'm ready."
But with some of Utah's most prominent health care, political and religious leaders looking on Tuesday, Haakon deftly maneuvered the machinery to lift some soil, and in doing so began a new chapter in the history of the Huntsman Cancer Institute.
When construction is completed in the fall of 2020, the institute will be home to the Senator Orrin G. Hatch Center for Proton Therapy, where patients will have access to a highly sophisticated medical apparatus designed to benefit those who are especially vulnerable to the unintended side effects of traditional radiation treatment.
Haakon, a brain cancer survivor from Heber who has faced much higher stakes situations in his young life than the artful operation of a back hoe, is exactly the type of patient the Huntsman Cancer Institute hopes to better serve when its new proton therapy technology is installed.
"I'm living proof this does work," Haakon said of proton therapy, which he had to travel to Seattle to receive after his cancer diagnosis just before Christmas last year.
Others like Haakon, who have cancerous tumors near or on critically important areas of the body such as the brain, will soon be able to stay in Utah to receive the treatment at the 7,450 square-foot center.
The center — expected to cost $31 million to add to the Huntsman Cancer Institute campus, with the proton therapy machine itself accounting for most of that cost — will be the first of its kind in the region. It is being paid for in part by a $10 million gift from the Huntsman Cancer Foundation.
Proton therapy is designed to minimize excess radiation outside of the tumor area compared to other cancer treatment methods.
"Today, cancer patients in our state who could benefit from proton therapy have to travel long distances, and literally have to relocate their families and themselves for extended periods in order to access this advanced type of treatment," said Huntsman Cancer Institute CEO Mary Beckerle at the groundbreaking celebration Tuesday.
"We're simply thrilled that the magic of proton therapy will soon be available right here in Utah, so patients … will have access to this impressive and cutting edge therapy without having to move hundreds of miles from home for extended periods in order to take care of what is important for their health."
Sen. Orrin Hatch said Tuesday that being the namesake of the new center is "among the greatest honors of my lifetime."
"In addition to the groundbreaking treatment they have developed, the Huntsman Cancer Institute offers patients an indispensable (remedy), and that's hope. Hope, that powerful medicine of the soul, is what brings us together today. It is hope that animates everything we do here … at the Huntsman Cancer Institute," the retiring seven-term Republican senator said.
Hatch said he is optimistic the Huntsman Cancer Institute "is going to find a way of defeating this disease." He praised the late Jon Huntsman Sr., the billionaire philanthropist who helped found the institute with his own money, as having "done so much for this state, so much for the Intermountain West, and frankly because of this cancer institute, so much for this world at large."
Peter Huntsman, CEO and chairman of the Huntsman Cancer Foundation and the president and CEO of the Huntsman Corporation, credited Hatch for his strong support of the cancer institute "during the early days."
"During the dark days, during the days when we needed to get the federal funding and the company was struggling and so forth, Sen. Hatch was there," Peter Huntsman said. "If my father (Jon Huntsman Sr.) were here, he would want to recognize Sen. Hatch."
Beckerle also lauded Hatch for having "secured substantial federal funding that allowed us to build the first phase of our cancer hospital."
"He has been with us from the very, very beginning," Beckerle said.
Gov. Gary Herbert was also on hand to give remarks honoring Hatch and celebrating the groundbreaking. President M. Russell Ballard, acting president of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and the Rev. France A. Davis, pastor of Calvary Baptist Church in Salt Lake City, offered prayers.
Also in attendance were Elder Dieter F. Uchtdorf, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ; University of Utah President Ruth Watkins; Karen Huntsman, the wife of the late Jon Huntsman Sr.; Utah Senate President Wayne Niderhauser, R-Sandy; and A. Scott Anderson, Zions Bank CEO and a member of the Huntsman Cancer Foundation's board of directors.
Of the roughly 1 in 3 Americans who get cancer at some point in their life time, about half will receive some type of radiation treatment, Huntsman Cancer Institute leaders have said.
Proton therapy is an especially advanced iteration of radiation treatment and can be of special benefit to those who have cancer near or on "critical structures" such as the brain, head or neck area, where it is especially important not to experience harmful side effects, explained Dr. Lindsay Burt, a radiation oncologist at Huntsman Cancer Hospital.
Burt said proton therapy is able to "deposit the radiation dose exactly in the tumor," while significantly reducing any unwanted side effects on surrounding, healthy tissue.
That added precision which accompanies proton therapy is also considered significantly helpful for pediatric patients, she said.
"We want our patients to have essentially no side effects," said Dr. David Gaffney, senior director of clinical research for the Huntsman Cancer Institute and vice chairman of the University of Utah's Department of Radiation Oncology. "The (proton beams) deposit their energy right at the tumor, so there's essentially no exit dose."
Dr. Dennis Shrieve, who is the Huntsman Cancer Institute chairman in cancer research and also chairs the Department of Radiation Oncology at the U.'s School of Medicine, told the Deseret News the proton therapy machinery which will be installed uses "extremely sophisticated" and cost-intensive technology that accelerate particles at exceptionally high speeds in order to target tumors with proton beams.
"There have been great advances in radiation oncology that have led to higher and higher cure rates in our cancer patients. … But we've reached the point where we can't do anything further with what we call conventional (radiation) therapy," Shrieve said at the groundbreaking ceremony. "Protons represent the next step."1 comment on this story
Currently, without a facility for proton therapy, Huntsman Cancer Institute refers about 60 to 70 patients per year to treatment centers elsewhere in the country, Burt said. Huntsman Cancer Institute estimates its new center will be used to give proton therapy care to about 200 patients each year.
The three-story machine weighs about 84,000 pounds, according to Matt Radke, vice president and project executive with Jacobsen Construction, which is building the new center housing the technology.
Correction: An earlier version incorrectly referred to Sen. Orrin Hatch as a six-term senator. Hatch is currently serving his 7th term in the U.S. Senate.