Celebrating 40 Years of Wilmot's History
The 1970s was a pivotal decade for cancer. The passage of the National Cancer Act in 1971 and the launch of the “War on Cancer” brought unprecedented attention and resources to bear on the nation’s second-leading cause of death. Scientific discoveries and advances in treatment were beginning to turn the tide, and people were starting to talk openly about living with cancer.
In 1974, amid these historic changes, the University of Rochester established a cancer center.
What has since grown into the Wilmot Cancer Institute has its roots in Great Society-era reforms aimed at bringing the expertise of academic medical centers in fields such as cancer to regional communities. Over 40 years, Wilmot Cancer Institute has stayed true to that vision and been a leader in cancer care — providing access to cutting-edge diagnostics, treatment and research throughout central and western New York.
The University of Rochester Cancer Center, as it was originally known, emerged from the Division of Oncology, established in the Department of Medicine at Strong Memorial Hospital during the early 1970s. Thomas C. Hall, M.D., appointed to lead the division, recruited doctors who were interested in cancer into various departments, building groups focused on radiation oncology, surgical oncology, gynecologic oncology and, eventually, medical oncology (a specialty that did not exist until the early 1970s).
By 1974, J. Lowell Orbison, M.D., then dean of the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry, saw the opportunity to boost the Division of Oncology into something greater. He appointed a committee to apply for a grant from the National Cancer Institute to create a cancer center. Robert Cooper, M.D., a surgical pathologist, was tapped to lead the effort.
“Cooper was very much interested in seeing Rochester focus a little more on the clinical, psychosocial, and clinical trials side, but he also wanted to have a pre-clinical side” that would conduct basic research, recalls John Bennett, M.D., professor emeritus in the Department of Medicine, Hematology/Oncology.
Cooper asked Bennett, who had established the hematology/oncology program at Highland Hospital, to lead the clinical oncology program at the University of Rochester Cancer Center.
Cooper and Bennett, with their colleagues radiation oncologist Philip Rubin and cancer surgeon Brad Patterson, applied for a specialized cancer center grant through the National Cancer Institute. The grant was awarded in 1975, and Rochester became one of the few university-based medical centers at the time to receive such a core grant.
Since then, the cancer center has evolved into the heart of a network that provides services throughout the Finger Lakes region and is known for its expertise in blood cancers, geriatric oncology, world-renowned researchers and precision medicine.
Jason Mendler, M.D., Ph.D., and undergraduate Allison Eberhardt study leukemia cells
At nearly 300,000 square feet, the Wilmot Cancer Center has become the hub of cancer research and clinical activities at Wilmot Cancer Institute and the University of Rochester Medical Center. It encompasses inpatient and outpatient units, as well as research laboratories and support services like social work and integrative oncology. The building’s seven floors bring together services that for most of the cancer center’s history were spread throughout the medical center.
The quest to bring it all under one roof began soon after the cancer center was established. In the 1980s, the University of Rochester Cancer Center opened in the footprint of what is now the Flaum Eye Institute, about halfway down Crittenden Boulevard. On the outside, it matched the stately red brick of the hospital. On the inside, it was classic ’70s.
“It was wood and orange and brown,” recalls Karen Mietus, R.N., B.S.N., clinical nurse coordinator, who came to the cancer center in 1986 from another part of the hospital. “But we did have a parking lot!”
Radiation oncology was on the ground floor. The physicians’ offices and other outpatient clinical areas were on the first floor. There were two procedure rooms and eight exam rooms that had accordion doors. There was one room for chemotherapy, and it had five chairs, all lined up beside each other.
The nursing staff was small — four part-time nurses and one full-time nurse. They were in clinic in the mornings — managing labs, triage and specimens with the help of a single tech— and did chemo in the afternoons.
“We were a small group, but it was family,” says Michele Haller, R.N., B.S.N., ambulatory nurse manager, who came to the cancer center in 1981. “It really felt like we supported one another. We were a cohesive group, and I think it’s still like that.”
Today, there are hundreds of clinical staff — including physicians, nurses, techs and pharmacists .
“We didn’t have a large cancer center,” says Marshall A. Lichtman, M.D., who served as chief of the Hematology Unit from 1975 to 1990. “But the center had excellent clinicians, scientists and a commitment to medical and nursing education.”
“One of the cancer center’s special features was the incorporation of the four other community hospitals into its clinical programs. This community outreach was very attractive to the National Cancer Institute during our application for a Center,” says Lichtman, who was the first director of the Wilmot Cancer Fellowship.
With the growth in research and advances in treatment options, the cancer center quickly outgrew its space. It underwent a renovation, and clinical departments expanded into other areas of the hospital, including the third floor of the ambulatory care center. Laboratory space was added as well.
At the same time, the clinical oncology programs were being reorganized. Multidisciplinary clinics were created for breast cancer, genitourinary cancer, pediatric late effects and thoracic oncology, and basic research clusters were developed for each one.
The cancer center was aggressively recruiting faculty with special expertise in these areas and in cancer cell biology/molecular oncology and neuro-oncology.
“The evolution of our understanding of the disease, especially with changes in radiation and chemotherapy, required expansion of our facility,” says George N. Abraham, M.D., who was cancer center director in the late 1990s.
By 2000, the cancer center was hitting a growth spurt. That year, it was rechristened as the James P. Wilmot Cancer Center to honor the man who had so generously endowed a research fellowship and whose family funded many other efforts.
Growth in the number of patients at the cancer center was astounding. Between 2001 and 2005, Wilmot Cancer Center saw 15 to 20 percent increases in annual patient volumes. By 2005, doctors and nurses at Wilmot Cancer Center were providing 100 chemotherapy infusions and 110 radiation therapy treatments every day.
The need for a new, larger and unified cancer center was apparent. Not only had the research operations been spread across the medical center campus, the patient care services were too.
“Eventually it became clear that we had to bring everything back into one building,” recalls Kishan J. Pandya, M.D., professor emeritus of Medicine, who had been brought in to oversee the move in the late 1990s to the ambulatory care center.
Led by Richard I. Fisher, M.D., who became the center’s director in 2001, plans for a new facility began to take shape. The state-of-the-art building that is now home to the Wilmot Cancer Center was designed to double the amount of space devoted to clinical and translational research and bring outpatient services back to one location. It was also designed to lay the foundation for capturing the National Cancer Institute designation as a comprehensive cancer center.
Where we are today
When the 164,000-square-foot building opened in 2008, it had three stories. The ground floor and first floor streamlined outpatient care, while the third floor offered research space. The building was constructed with the understanding that as needs grew, the cancer center could expand vertically.
Significant investments in technology, which was rapidly advancing in the early 2000s, brought in state-of-the art equipment, including a $10.5 million linear accelerator that helps doctors better target and deliver radiation to destroy tumors.
These investments, in turn, drew more medical and scientific talent to Rochester.
“Without question, this building helped recruit excellent physicians because it demonstrated the institution’s commitment to cancer care, as well as the community’s,” says Jonathan W. Friedberg, M.D., M.M.Sc., director of the Wilmot Cancer Institute. Friedberg came to Rochester in 2002 from the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston.
“We’ve filled this building with talented clinicians who’re research-minded,” he says.
Karen Mietus, R.N., B.S.N., left, and Michele Haller, R.N., B.S.N., have been taking care of patients at Wilmot Cancer Institute since the 1980s.
Faculty and staff grew over the last decade, allowing the expansion of the clinical trials program and deepening the cancer center’s expertise in solid tumors.
Within two years, construction began on a four-story vertical expansion of the building. The project added more than 100,000 square feet to the cancer center for research and inpatient care.
For the first time, inpatient units were located within the cancer center. Two inpatient units from Strong Memorial Hospital — the Samuel E. Durand Blood and Marrow Transplant unit (the second largest program of its kind in New York State), and the adult Hematology/Oncology unit, which expanded from 23 to 30 beds — were added to the cancer center. These units occupy the sixth and seventh floors of the cancer center and opened in 2012. They were designed to support the care of patients but also to improve the comfort and convenience for them and their families.
The fifth floor opened in March 2014 to accommodate post-surgical oncology patients from urology, GI cancers, head and neck cancers, and orthopedic cancers. Most of these patients will stay in the hospital for two to seven days.
In addition, the expansion created an urgent care/triage area for patients who had acute needs but did not require a visit to the emergency department.
This expansion essentially created a comprehensive cancer hospital within Strong Memorial Hospital. It now provides the full continuum of inpatient and outpatient care and adds convenience and efficiency for patients and staff.
Not only does the building enhance the patient experience, it also has facilitated collaboration and connection among clinicians and researchers.
“It has a phenomenal design for someone who’s trying to be a physician-scientist,” says Jason H. Mendler, M.D., Ph.D., who is studying leukemia.
“You need to be able to transition quickly from the clinic to the lab,” he says. “Everything is so physically close I can really do both jobs.”
Looking to the future
While Wilmot Cancer Center was growing on the campus at Strong Memorial Hospital, it also began to extend its reach beyond Rochester. In 2012 and 2013, the cancer center acquired Pluta Cancer Center and Interlakes Oncology and Hematology, which has locations from Geneva to Brockport. This year, it acquired Batavia Radiation Oncology.
The growth at Wilmot reflects the commitment of the leadership at the University of Rochester Medical Center, including UR Medicine CEO Bradford C. Berk, M.D., Ph.D., and Steven I. Goldstein, president and CEO of Strong Memorial and Highland hospitals, Friedberg says.
“Their commitment has helped create an energy that will translate into a bright future,” he says.
The acquisitions of Pluta and Interlakes added to a cancer care network that already included Highland Hospital and Sands Cancer Center in Canandaigua through their affiliations with the medical center. Together, with the Wilmot Cancer Center in Rochester, they comprise the new Wilmot Cancer Institute, the umbrella brand that encompasses all of our clinical enterprises and our research. With the Wilmot Cancer Center at Strong Memorial Hospital at the center of our network, we are bringing our services to the region, not just drawing patients to Rochester.
“This building will become more of a location for the rare and complex, and over time as we expand our locations, some of the standard things we do in this building can be done in those communities,” Friedberg says.
Regardless of where the care is delivered, the approach will incorporate precision medicine that will allow more tailored treatment for each patient using cutting-edge technologies and therapies. It will require not just building the infrastructure to deliver this care, but also the expertise of the doctors, nurses and other providers who will help develop and offer this care.
It’s an approach that will continue to bolster the Wilmot Cancer Institute’s reputation locally and nationally, and it will require strong commitments into the future, Friedberg says.
“We’re making investments now to maintain our membership among the nation’s elite cancer centers.”