Spring 2016
Alumnus Opens Elko Cancer Center

synapse: University of Nevada, Reno School of Medicine

Douglas Debenham and staff of the NNROC

Rural Cancer Care: Northeastern Nevada Radiation Oncology Center staff in Elko offer services to cancer patients. From left are Brian Hulse, Lacy Hermann, Doug Debenham, M.D., and Aimee Hulse. Photo by Keith Clark.

Story by Dean Schermerhorn

Rather than traveling to Reno or Salt Lake City, cancer patients in rural northeastern Nevada now can receive treatment in Elko, thanks to an enterprising School of Medicine alumnus. Doug Debenham, M.D.'94, opened Nevada's first rural cancer center, the Northeastern Nevada Radiation Oncology Center, on the campus of Northeastern Nevada Regional Hospital.

While the center's primary service is radiation treatment for malignancies, Debenham coordinates other cancer treatments, often with Reno oncologists, for chemotherapy. He also coordinates testing and treatment with specialty surgeons at Huntsman Cancer Institute in Salt Lake City, which is the largest cancer center near Elko. The Northeastern Nevada Radiation Oncology Center serves 10 to 12 patients a day under treatment.

"We have a nice trend of services going up since we opened, so we are able to help more people and keep them from traveling," he said.

His patients live across a large portion of northeastern Nevada. Debenham is proud that his center has been able to help people from the whole region. Debenham was motivated to open the center in part because of his love for northern Nevada. He grew up in Alaska and had not lived in Reno before attending the School of Medicine. He had "a fantastic experience" at the school and enjoyed living in Reno, where his wife's mother, brother and sister also lived. Although he went to Cleveland for his residency, he prefers smaller communities. He had been thinking about opening the cancer center for several years and choosing Elko meant a return to Nevada and a return to family.

"It's a beautiful rural area, which we really enjoy," said Debenham. Now that he lives in Elko, more family has migrated there, including a younger brother.

In his 20 years of practice, Debenham always has specialized in general radiation oncology. He treats brain, gynecologic, prostate, lung and bowel cancers, but refers pediatric radiation treatments to children's cancer centers elsewhere in the U.S. Before the center opened, patients traveled to Salt Lake City, Reno or Twin Falls, Idaho for treatment. Debenham heard stories of patients living in a hotel for six weeks during radiation treatment. Since the center opened, he has heard from many people who are grateful to have his center, so they can stay at home while undergoing treatment. Debenham described the challenges that he faced in opening the cancer center.

"There was no cancer ecosystem here," he explained.

None of the ancillary service providers who help cancer patients were in the local area, so he went to a lot of effort to coordinate those services. He found the work rewarding as he helped resolve problems that patients faced and arranged the services that they need. The whole exercise was an anxiety-provoking experience, according to Debenham.

"You want to offer those services, but you have to be careful about viability."

Opening a practice or facility in a location not previously served requires due diligence regarding the number of patients for whom a physician can provide care and the services that can be offered. To open the center, Debenham partnered with RBSE, a company in Nashville whose mission is partnering with physicians to bring cancer services to rural areas. His is the third center with which they have partnered. The other two are in Alaska. Debenham remembered that while the cancer center was being built, the community held an event called "Written in Stone," in which residents wrote messages of hope and inspiration on the center's inside walls where the radiation machine would be installed. They took pictures for a book and held a candlelight vigil for those lost to cancer.

"It has been gratifying to see the support from the community. It has been a wonderful thing," said Debenham.

Maintaining relationships with alumni has led to a rewarding development: in January 2016, Debenham held a tumor board cancer conference. Working with the school's Frontier Area Health Education Center, they were able to obtain approval for this conference to give continuing medical education credits.