By BELINDA SCOTT
COFFS HARBOUR mayor Cr Keith Rhoades was the only one wearing a hat when more than a dozen health, local government, development and media representatives gathered yesterday on the site of Coffs Harbour's new radiotherapy unit.
This was telling because North Coast Area Health Service chief executive officer Chris Crawford said one of the reasons why the region has a higher-than-average incidence of cancer (5.4 per cent of new cases each year compared to 3.4 per cent statewide) is the high incidence of skin cancers in the region, added to greater numbers of older people.
The official reason for the gathering was to celebrate the Coffs Harbour City Council's approval of the development application for the unit, now called the North Coast Cancer Institute's Integrated Cancer Centre and to inspect the site for the Centre.
This is being built on part of 10,000 square metres of land which is currently being transferred to the Area Health Service by Coffs Harbour City Council.
Cr Keith Rhoades said by helping to facilitate the project, council could directly help Coffs Coast cancer sufferers and their families.
He said once the Centre was open people would no longer have to face travelling huge distances to Sydney or Brisbane for treatment, as well as staying away from home for long periods.
But the mayor could not resist having a swipe at NSW State Government's treatment of the city when he pointed out that in its land transfer, the council was setting an example and giving to the government.
At more than one hectare, the land transfer is five times the 2000 square metres originally envisaged and includes the land for Shearwater Lodge, the School of Rural Health and the Cancer Institute, which itself will occupy about 3500 square metres.
The CEO of the North Coast Area Health Service (NCAHS), Chris Crawford, said the Cancer Institute building would be much larger than originally planned to allow for future expansion, as he expected the facility to be full almost as soon as it opened.
Mr Crawford said the project's key objective was to improve the low incidence of North Coast cancer patients currently receiving radiotherapy treatment.
The Coffs Harbour and Port Macquarie centres, which are being developed in tandem, will together treat about 825 patients a year.
The $39.4 million project, involving $2.5 million linear accelerators at both Port Macquarie and Coffs Harbour, will employ 62 staff, 30 of them at Coffs Harbour, where radiation oncology, medical oncology and BreastScreen services will all be provided.
Project manager Kevin Plummer said all basic earthworks, most of the roadworks and external lighting was already complete on the site, east of the base hospital, with site ground level now more than half a metre above the November 1996 flood level.
Mr Crawford said the Area Health Service was negotiating on a price with the winner of the design and construction tender.
He said building in Coffs Harbour should be finished by Christmas, 2006, and services were expected to begin operating in Coffs Harbour in March, 2007.
Mr Crawford said recruiting had got off to a good start with the appointment of Associate Professor Dr Tom Shakespeare as Area Director of Cancer Services and chief radiation therapist Stuart Greenham; the NCAHS had just recruited a business manager and nurse for the centre and the next step was to recruit for 'the front line'.
Mr Crawford said he was confident the centre would be fully staffed when it opened, although some of those staff might not be new, but staff drawn from within the MNCAHS.