UPMC'S Mario Lemieux Center for Blood Cancers opens in Shadyside

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With the opening this month of the Mario Lemieux Center for Blood Cancers, there may be no better place than Pittsburgh to be treated for leukemia, lymphoma or multiple myeloma.

The 24,000-square-foot facility on the fourth floor of UPMC's Hillman Cancer Center in Shadyside was designed with patient comfort and convenience uppermost in mind. It's painted in earth tones for their calming effect. Large glass windows provide lots of natural light.

Consultation rooms have flat-screen TVs and wireless Internet access. At the suggestion of patients, they have, instead of beds, super-comfy high-tech easy chairs that can recline or provide heat or a soothing massage at the touch of a button. There is a putting green on the terrace.

A look at the new Mario Lemieux Center for Blood Cancers

The Mario Lemieux Center for Blood Cancers, at Hillman Cancer Center of UPMC, is preparing to open. (Video by Nate Guidry; 12/19/2012)

On the treatment side, infusion chairs -- where patients receive chemotherapy -- have touchscreen computers that provide medical information, Internet access, games and other entertainment options.

The key feature is that patients who now must travel to different offices and sometimes to different hospitals to see their physicians or to undergo tests will be able to see their entire treatment team in just one place.

"Our focus is to improve the patient experience through the center's design and to bring the latest technology and research from the lab to the bedside so we can ensure we are providing the best care possible," said Nancy Davidson, director of the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute and the UPMC Cancer Center.

About 74,000 patients are treated each year by the 1,700 doctors, nurses, scientists and administrative staff at the 37 hospitals and clinics in Pennsylvania and Ireland that comprise the UPMC Cancer Center. The Hillman Cancer Center is its hub.

The Mario Lemieux Center is expected to be the crown jewel. The staff will provide comprehensive diagnostic services, individually designed treatment plans and long-term followup to about 25,000 patients a year on an outpatient basis. They'll be able to obtain treatments traditionally available only to inpatients.

The Cancer Institute does cutting-edge research, currently ranking 12th in funding by the National Cancer Institute. The Mario Lemieux Center will make it easier for patients to take part in clinical trials.

Technically, the center had its inception in 2005 when the Mario Lemieux Foundation donated $3.5 million for its construction. That kicked off a five-year $100 million capital campaign. Construction began last year. The grand opening was Dec. 18. Patients will be accepted starting this week.

The real beginning was in 1993, when a lump appeared on the neck of the Pittsburgh Penguins hockey superstar. It was Hodgkin's lymphoma, a cancer of the lymphatic system. Fortunately for Mario Lemieux, the disease is one of the most curable forms of cancer. In April, he will have been cancer-free for 20 years.

"Because of my own experience with Hodgkin's disease, I know firsthand what many of these patients are going through and how important it is to feel comfortable and relaxed when there is so much uncertainty and worry," said Mr. Lemieux in a statement. He attended the dedication ceremony with his wife, Nathalie, and daughter Lauren but chose not to speak.

Putting patients at ease is very important. But what's most important is the accuracy of diagnosis and the quality of care. The survival rates for various types of cancers can vary dramatically, and access to high-quality cancer care "can have a substantial impact on outcome," according to a 1999 report for the American Cancer Society calling for a reduction of barriers to quality health care.

UPMC was 28th (out of more than 900 hospitals) this year in U.S. News & World Report's annual ranking of the best hospitals for treatment of cancer. UPMC got the highest rankings for advanced technologies and patient services, and it ranked high in nurse staffing, according to the report based on a survey of specialists and hospital data. But UPMC had only "moderate" success in keeping patients safe and a "modest" reputation with specialists.

Magee-Womens Hospital, which is part of the UPMC Cancer Center, ranked 45th in the U.S. News survey. Magee also got the highest rankings for advanced technologies and patient services, was "superior" in keeping patients safe, and had survival rates that were "much better than expected." But nurse staffing was "average," and Magee's ranking with specialists was "none."

Allegheny General Hospital fell just outside the top 50. AGH also ranked high for advanced technologies and patient services and "much better than expected" survival rates. But nurse staffing was "average," and reputation with specialists was also "none."

There are more than 100 types of cancer. Blood cancers start, mostly, in the bone marrow where blood is produced. Cancerous cells prevent blood from performing critical functions.

Leukemia, a cancer of the blood and bone marrow, is the most common. It's caused by the rapid production of abnormal white blood cells. They impair the ability of the bone marrow to produce red blood cells, which are critical to fighting infections, and platelets (parts of cells that seal damaged blood vessels and help blood clot). Leukemia can be acute (spreads rapidly) or chronic (spreads slowly).

Lymphoma affects the lymphatic system, which removes excess fluids from the body and produces immune cells. Hodgkin's lymphoma spreads in an orderly manner from one group of lymph nodes to another. Non-Hodgkin's spreads randomly.

Myeloma attacks plasma cells, the white blood cells that produce disease-fighting antibodies. It affects primarily older adults.

Cancer typically is treated with chemotherapy, radiation therapy, the surgical removal of a tumor or a combination. The most promising developments in the treatment of blood cancers have been in transplants of stem cells from bone marrow, blood or umbilical cords, which can re-establish a normal blood supply after diseased cells have been destroyed.

All the latest treatments and technologies -- and the physician expertise required to use them effectively -- are available at the UPMC Cancer Center. The Mario Lemieux Center for Blood Cancers will be the chief portal for obtaining them.

"It will enable us to provide complex treatments for all types of blood cancers," said Stanley Marks, chief medical officer for the Cancer Center.

The long-term goal is to develop the center as a national and international referral site for individualized and cutting-edge care, said Tom Grealish, president of the Mario Lemieux Foundation.


Jack Kelly: jkelly@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1476. First Published December 24, 2012 5:00 AM


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