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'A circle of love:' Sanford Bemidji Cancer Center celebrates achievements

Sanford Bemidji Cancer Center reached a milestone Tuesday, achieving two cancer care accreditations. Making the announcement was Dr. John Bollinger, chairman of the cancer committee for Sanford Bemidji .

BEMIDJI -- The magnitude of her breast cancer diagnosis didn't completely hit Sarah Anderson until a few weeks later, when she missed her chance to get a photo of her kindergartner riding the school bus on the last day of school.

Twelve months later, she got the shot, snapping a photo as her daughter rode the bus on her final day of first grade.

"All of you have helped me get through and to get my moment back," Anderson said Tuesday afternoon, addressing a room full of Sanford Health employees. "Those are the moments that us cancer patients don't want to be away from and the fact that I can be here and the fact that I could go to chemo and come home and sleep in my own bed ... it's huge."

Anderson was one of three speakers who addressed Sanford employees during a program celebrating the achievements of the Sanford Bemidji Cancer Center. The center, part of the medical center, recently earned a three-year national accreditation with commendation from the Commission on Cancer of the American College of Surgeons.

"We did it," said Dr. John Bollinger, prompting enthusiastic applause and cheers from his colleagues. Bollinger is a radiation oncologist and chairman of the cancer committee for Sanford Bemidji.

A three-year accreditation with commendation is only bestowed on cancer programs that exceed 34 quality care standards in patient-centered care.

In addition to that accreditation, the Bemidji cancer center this spring also earned accreditation as a breast cancer center. Working toward both distinctions simultaneously was something that Bollinger admitted that he, himself, doubted.

"I said, 'That can't be done, that's impossible. It's hard enough to do one accreditation much less two at the same time, and I was wrong," Bollinger said. "Through the efforts of many people in this room we were able to do it."

Sanford Bemidji Cancer Center serves its patients -- which sees about 400 new patients every year -- through a multidisciplinary approach, through collaborative efforts and consultations between surgeons, medical and radiation oncologists, diagnostic oncologists, pathologists and other specialists.

It is a collaboration that Anderson detailed as she took to the podium to describe her process, from waking up on Mother's Day in 2013 and finding a lump in her left breast to her breast cancer diagnosis to surgery and then to eight rounds of chemotherapy and 28 days of radiation.

"Nothing can prepare for you for that moment" when you are told you have breast cancer, she said. She credited the staff with helping her through her journey.

The hospital made sure to have staff on hand to support her and guide her throughout the process. Anderson was encouraged to include her daughter in the process and to invite family into her chemotherapy room.

"They set that (room) up so you can do whatever you want in there and we took it to another level," Anderson said.

With her family at her side, she celebrated each round of chemo. Through pictures, she showed her first round happened to fall on her 35th birthday, so her family had a birthday party as she underwent chemo. Other rounds had a luau theme, a "Hello Kitty extravaganza" -- thanks to her daughter's choosing -- a Vikings theme and an autumn theme. Her final round was marked by Bemidji plaid, with everyone dressing in the traditional red-and-black-checkered pattern.

She recalled how happy she was when she got to ring the bell, marking the end of her chemo appointments. It was a tradition started by Terri Bentler, an R.N. who serves as the nurse navigator.

"That was a pretty momentous day," Anderson said, "after that last round, when you get to ring that bell. Everyone stands around and everyone cheers for you. It's just a moment to reflect back on what you have done and what I had been through."

The completion of chemo led to her radiation appointments with "Lola," the staff's pet name for the radiation machine, which Anderson saw regularly until her radiation appointments finally came to an end.

"I walked out and that whole department was standing out there, and you just walk into this circle of love," she said. "It was a really cool moment and I was done and everyone was there and we hugged and it was good."

When patients received care at a Commission on Cancer facility, they have access to clinical trials and new treatments, genetic counseling and patient-centered services, including pyscho-social support, a patient navigation process and a survivorship care plan. The Sanford Bemidji Cancer Center also maintains a cancer registry and contributes data to the National Cancer Data Base to explore trends in cancer care.

"We have come a long way but we have a lot of work to do still," said Dan Olson, president of Sanford Health of Northern Minnesota. "You have my commitment and Sanford's commitment to create the best comprehensive, coordinated cancer center in the region."