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$12 million Ashland cancer center planned

A March groundbreaking is planned for a $12 million cancer center in Ashland, it's expected to be announced today.

The Northwest Wisconsin Cancer Center will fill a serious need for cancer patients in the Ashland area, said Dr. Mihailo Lalich, an oncologist who will be the center's medical director.

"In my mind the biggest reason for the cancer center is to have radiation treatment facilities here," said Lalich, who lives in Washburn. "We are really lacking in the ability to treat people with radiation. Right now they have to go to Duluth, which is a long way to go and takes a lot of time and energy."

Ashland is 70 miles east of Duluth on U.S. Highway 2, much of which is a two-lane highway.

Lalich is employed by Duluth-based Essentia Health, which will build the center along with Memorial Medical Center of Ashland. The new building will be adjacent to the medical center and to Essentia Health-Ashland Clinic, Essentia announced in a news release.

Memorial Medical Center isn't part of Essentia Health, but Essentia has provided cancer care services at its facility since 2002, the news release said.

The new facility will open in August 2015 if all goes according to plan, said Jason Douglas, CEO of Memorial Medical Center.

Mike Metcalf, executive vice president for clinic operations at Essentia, said the idea of building a cancer center in Ashland first arose five years ago, and has been the subject of intense discussion for the past two years.

"The business has picked up to a great extent over there," Metcalf said in an interview. "The decision to do this was really driven from our patients."

In an interview, Lalich said chemotherapy has been offered at Ashland for quite some time. But it's not possible to offer radiation treatment with the current facilities.

Some patients choose to forego radiation rather than make the frequent trips to Duluth, Lalich said. The treatments typically take place every weekday throughout their duration, he said.

"There are people that hit the road from Ashland or the surrounding areas and go to Duluth Monday through Friday, five days a week, for seven weeks in a row," Lalich said. "And it's a huge burden. ... Sometimes it's all the energy they can muster to go back and forth."

A cancer center in Ashland will provide more convenient access to communities such as Sawyer, and even into the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, Metcalf noted.

Lalich, who has been an Essentia oncologist since 2007, moved to Washburn in 2012 so he could spend all of his time at the Essentia clinics in Ashland, Spooner and Hayward. He'll be joined at the cancer center by Dr. Peter Kebbekus and Hillary Lambert -- a nurse practitioner -- both of whom now travel to Ashland one day a week.

A team of radiation oncologists from Duluth will provide full-time coverage in Ashland, officials said.

The Ashland facility will have similar services to those provided at Essentia's Cancer Center in Duluth, including infusion therapy, clinical trials, a rehabilitation program, a survivorship program and an educational resource center.

Boldt Construction has been chosen as contractor for the project with Wisconsin-based Kahler Slater as architect, the news release said.