Shuntina Ferguson recalled her first cancer diagnosis and surgery at age 32. After doctors conducted tests, she later underwent two major medical procedures: a double mastectomy and then a hysterectomy.
The District Heights resident in Prince George’s County said faith and the love of her family which includes two children, serve as the reason she’s a cancer survivor “because everyone I knew who had cancer died.”
She received her last treatment at an oncologist’s office in 2011 in Greenbelt but said the office moved to Silver Spring in neighboring Montgomery County with new workers where she continues to go today.
“I don’t like going out there because . . . I don’t feel any warmth from the people,” said Ferguson, now 44. “I definitely believe if I was to go to the new cancer center in Prince George’s County, I would feel that warmth. Plus, I wouldn’t have to drive all the way to Silver Spring.”
Ferguson’s conclusion illustrates the goal for hospital officials and doctors when the new University of Maryland Capital Region Cancer Center opens in 2024 on the Largo campus of the state-of-the-art $500 million medical center that opened in June.
The majority Black jurisdiction leads the state of Maryland and the D.C. region with the highest cancer diagnoses with a focus on four types of cancers: lung, breast, colorectal and prostate. Cancer ranks as the second-leading cause of death in Prince George’s behind heart disease.
Hospital and government officials broke ground Thursday, April 7 for the cancer center that anticipates providing service for 1,000 patients in its first year.
Sen. Joanne C. Benson (D-District 24) of Landover, another Prince George’s cancer survivor, said she plans to volunteer at the center whenever she can.
“I am a 37-year cancer survivor,” she said. “You can’t imagine what it’s like being told that you have cancer. It’s hard. But with a cancer center [employing] the best and the brightest working, it does give hope to many people.”
One of those specialty doctors who’ll work at the center, Dr. Melissa Ann Liriana Vyfhuis, said it’s also personal for her as a Prince George’s native. Before becoming a radiation oncologist, she worked her first job at the former Landover Mall site located just a few miles from the hospital.
Vyfhuis’ family still resides in the county: her parents in Capitol Heights, sister in Suitland, in-laws in Lanham and her children, nieces and nephews all enrolled in the county’s public schools.
“My community has given me so much that I am truly joyful to be given an opportunity to now serve through excellent cancer care,” said Vyfhuis, a visiting assistant professor at the University of Maryland School of Medicine.
A major boost to construct the center will be $67 million in state funding – part of a “Maryland Cancer Moonshot Initiative” aimed at accelerating cancer screening, prevention and treatment.
The $216 million program includes $100 million to expand the University of Maryland Greenbaum Comprehensive Cancer Center in downtown Baltimore; $25 million for cancer research projects for the University of Maryland School of Medicine and Johns Hopkins University; and $20.5 million in stem cell research for regenerative medicine projects and groundbreaking treatments.
“This is very near and dear to my heart because I know how difficult it is to get that life-altering diagnosis and to experience that feeling of not knowing what comes next,” said Gov. Larry Hogan, a cancer survivor who grew up in Prince George’s. “With the completion of this new cancer center . . . [residents] will be able to receive the high-quality cancer treatment and medical care that they deserve.”
Dr. Mohan Suntha, an oncologist and president and CEO of the University of Maryland Medical System, said an estimated 100 full-time employees would work at the center with the potential to increase that number based on the needs of the county’s ever-increasing population of nearly one million.
He said the hospital’s location also helps patients, especially with Largo Town Center Metrorail station nearby and availability of bus service, to combat one of the world’s most dreaded diseases.
“As a cancer doctor, think about the anxiety associated with a diagnosis like cancer,” Suntha said. “Think about the idea of being able to get your high-quality health care access closer to home. It benefits you as the patient, benefits your family, benefits your children. There is just a halo effect that comes with proximity.”