Famed Salt Lake City cancer center expanding

Huntsmans at ceremonial groundbreaking
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Wearing a pink button that said "Cancer sucks" and mascara on her newly regrown eyelashes, Letty Willden sat in the front row of a ceremonial groundbreaking for the expansion of the Huntsman Cancer Institute.

She couldn't say enough Friday about how well she has been treated at the Salt Lake City hospital, where she has had chemotherapy and radiation for breast cancer that spread to her lymph nodes.

"It's not like a hospital. It doesn't smell like a hospital. They treat you like you're alive, not like you're dying," said Willden, 49. "I feel like my life is in good hands."

Most everyone in the crowd of 400 wiped away tears as speakers - including Sen. Orrin Hatch and LDS Church President Thomas S. Monson - recalled loved ones with cancer, and praised Jon and Karen Huntsman for their dedication to diagnosing, treating and eventually curing the disease. The couple donated $225 million to build the institute, which opened in 2004.

"I can't think of a greater contribution to humanity than what we're celebrating here," said the Huntsmans' son and Utah's governor, Jon Huntsman Jr. "We're going to continue to extend and save human life."

"Every family will be touched by this horrifying and tragic disease," added Huntsman Sr., whose prostate cancer sparked his cancer philanthropy. "We must end cancer."

In 2011, the hospital will double its beds from 50 to 100, add 25 outpatient exam rooms and four operating rooms, and a new breast health center combining screening, diagnosis and surgery. It will include an expanded "infusion room," where patients get their chemotherapy overlooking the foothills, and more "personalized medicine" clinics to aid families at high risk for certain cancers.

It will also boast the Intermountain West's only intra-operative Magnetic Resonance Imaging system, providing surgeons images of cancer tumors as they are operating on them.

The official groundbreaking on the $110 million hospital expansion will happen in the spring. Some $30 million will come from donations and the rest from bonds issued by the state next year and repaid with hospital revenues, said Janet Bingham, president of the institute's fundraising foundation.

They are optimistic they will be able to bond despite the tight credit market, she said.

Bingham said no expansion donations have been collected, but she announced a $5 million research contribution by the Beverly Hills-based Lincy Foundation. It was established by Kirk Kerkorian, an Armenian-American the Huntsmans befriended while donating to rebuild Armenia after a 1998 earthquake.

Monson, Huntsman's fishing buddy, said his parents and in-laws died of cancer, and he recalled a girl he blessed after doctors found a tumor in her leg. He kept the balloons she had attached to her wheelchair, and had them blown up the day she returned to say the cancer was gone. "How do you say thank you to Jon and Karen? I know of no better words than, 'Thank you.' "

After the ceremony, patient Emma Houston said the staff is on "a crusade to eliminate this disease." Houston, 52, was diagnosed with stage IV breast cancer three years ago, and wore red high-heeled shoes to chemo. "Let's dress like you're going somewhere," she recalled thinking. "This was an important place to come to."


Cancer facts

* 565,650 Americans will die of cancer this year, more than 1,500 a day.

* 7,760 new cancer cases will be diagnosed in Utah this year.

* 1 in 2 men and 1 in 3 women have a risk of developing cancer in their lifetime.

* Cancer is the second-leading cause of death in the U.S.

Source: Huntsman Cancer Institute