The event was billed as the official grand opening of the $115 million Provision Center for Proton Therapy.
It was that, complete with ceremonial ribbon-cutting, but the gathering at the Dowell Springs Business Park in Knoxville on Wednesday was more like a revival.
The big tent erected in the parking lot in front of Tennessee’s first and only proton therapy treatment center held 600 chairs. Row by row, the temporary space was packed with people. Standing guests lined the walls that offered protection from the wind and rain that couldn’t dampen the enthusiasm inside.
Applause echoed as groups were introduced. Applause for the Provision founders. Applause for Provision doctors and staff. Applause for the officeholders, mayors and legislators who had helped the 501(c)3 not-for-profit public corporation turn from dream to reality.
Perhaps the longest applause and loudest cheers were for patients at the center and cancer survivors who had been cured by proton therapy.
“We are truly blessed to do what we do,” said Bill Hansen, Provision vice president and master of ceremony. “And we are thrilled that you’re here to celebrate with us today.”
Proton therapy uses a single beam of high-energy protons to treat various forms of cancer, such as prostate, pediatric, sarcoma, brain, lung and breast cancers. It differs from conventional radiation therapy. Proton beams can be fine-tuned with millimeters of accuracy to deliver maximum energy within the controlled range of the cancerous tumor, minimizing the exposure to healthy tissue.
Terry Douglass, Provision founder and board chairman, quickly addressed one concern on the minds of people who had been diagnosed with cancer. He referred to the failure of the Tennessee General Assembly to pass a bill that would require insurance companies to cover proton therapy. Sen. Doug Overbey, R-Maryville, a sponsor of the bill, has said he will bring the bill back before the Legislature next year.
“I want to make something clear. This is a community resource,” Douglass said of the Provision Center, which is one of only 14 proton therapy centers in the U.S.
“As part of that mission to serve the community and its patients, we’ll make sure that all cancer patients that need proton therapy get it. I know you’ve heard things about legislation and that not passing, but we have committed this resource, since it is put together for the public benefit, to make sure that any cancer patient that needs proton therapy, no matter what their situation is, will get it. So all patients and their physicians will find solutions to their need.”
Douglass said the effort to free proton therapy from insurance restrictions will be ongoing.
“We will continue to fight for coverage for all Tennesseans and for all age groups.”
The center treated its first patient on Jan. 20. All of the early treatments were with prostate cancer patients because Provision started first with a fixed-beam device. Last week the therapy center began operating its gantry, and now can treat the wide variety of cancers.
Provision will add a third treatment room in September and plans to add two more in the future as the need grows. The center currently treats about 20 patients per day. After the third treatment room opens, the center will be able to treat about 90 patients daily.
Gold medal survivor
Scott Hamilton, Olympic Gold Medalist, cancer survivor and Provision board member, also addressed the group. He is a mentor for cancer patients and an advocate for the center and for expanding the word about the greater availability of cancer-treatment options.
“You’ll be seeing a lot of this face,” Hamilton said. “We’re going to be making a lot of noise in the community.”
In December, “Scott Hamilton and Friends on Ice” will hold its annual charity event that includes a skating show and dinner to support world-class research and quality care that can lead to a cure of cancer. He invited those assembled at the grand opening to attend.
“To have a proton therapy center in your backyard, you have no idea how unbelievably awesome that is,” he said. “There’s no better technology that exists than proton therapy, and you have it right here.”
In related news, construction is underway at Pellissippi Place in Blount County, where the corporate relative to the not-for-profit Provision Center will stand. ProNova Solutions’ corporate headquarters and research and commercialization laboratory will serve as the anchor tenant for the R&D park located off Pellissippi Parkway at Old Knoxville Highway in Alcoa.