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As cancer treatment improves, oncology centers expand

Cancer is the second most common killer in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control -- so it’s no surprise that cancer treatment gets a lot of attention. Later today, an outpatient cancer facility in Gilbert will break ground on a 100,000 square-foot expansion. In the first of two parts, KJZZ’s Nick Blumberg reports how oncology treatment in the Valley affects public health and the local economy. 

The Banner MD Anderson Cancer Center in the east Valley says it’s been growing -- and fast -- since it opened in Fall 2011. The expansion is set to open in the spring of next year, with more space for patients, new treatment options, and shell space.

“That’s going to allow us to continue to keep up with the volume demand as well as provide space for both growth that we plan today and growth into the future," said Todd Werner, CEO of Banner MD Anderson. He said the center’s focusing on many aspects of cancer care. That means putting things like stem cell therapy, pain management, and nutrition under one roof.

“We’re putting in that building a number of different disciplines, and so I think that the reducing of fragmentation is a big part of where the industry needs to head,” Werner said.

He’s not alone in that opinion. It’s an increasingly common approach, and a major focus of Banner and the MD Anderson Network.

MD Anderson is based in Houston, but they’ve expanded into Florida, New Mexico, and the Phoenix area. They’re far from the only game in town here -- the Mayo Clinic and the St. Joseph’s-U of A partnership are both undergoing expansion, there’s the Arizona Oncology group, and the Cancer Treatment Centers of America in Goodyear.

It may sound like a lot, but Todd Werner says Phoenix is still doing some catching up.

“I believe that we have the opportunity, and are beginning to create the right structures that would allow us to evolve into that leading metro kind of an area for this type of health care.”

And if Phoenix becomes a leader, it could benefit the economy. A few years ago, MD Anderson commissioned a study to determine the cost of cancer on its home state, Texas, and found the disease meant $115 billion in lost spending annually. Improving outcomes for cancer patients could help bring that number down.

That same study also looked at the impact that MD Anderson had as an economic driver in its community -- and found it contributed to billions in spending and tens of thousands of jobs. About 20,000 of those are in-house.

“If we were a city, by population we’d rank in the top 100 in Texas," said Ronald DePinho. He leads that "city" -- the University of Texas MD Anderson Center. He says doctors now have a strong understanding of what causes cancer, they’ve got better treatment options, and more innovations are on the way.

“This is an incredibly exciting time in the history of cancer science and cancer care. We’re at a true turning point with respect to taming this beast.”

“Richard Nixon said in, I think 1971, that they were going to start a war on cancer and reduce cancer deaths. And in the next roughly 35 years, deaths from cancer didn’t drop at all,” said  Gautam Gowrisankaran, a health economist at the University of Arizona. “But over the last five years, there’s been big reductions in deaths from cancer. And a lot of this is about many new therapies that have come on board, and so I think that with those new therapies, there’s probably a need for more oncology centers.”

Few people would turn those centers away from Phoenix, a market still recovering from the Great Recession and hungry for high-quality jobs. But there’s plenty of debate over best practices for those centers and what impact they have on a metro area and beyond.