Having cancer used to be a lot harder on the Kenai Peninsula.
Treatment for any type of cancer takes multiple appointments and usually chemotherapy. For a long time, none was available on the peninsula. Patients would make the long trek to and from Anchorage, sometimes multiple times per week, through bad weather and illness.
The winding roads and poor conditions were torturous for many, Kathy Lopeman remembers.
“People would be vomiting,” Lopeman remembers. “It was just awful.”
There were a few things available on the peninsula, like limited chemotherapy, but no comprehensive care. Lopeman, a former oncology nurse at Central Peninsula Hospital, said she insisted that the hospital start a small infusion operation so patients could stay closer to home.
At first, she started out with eight hours a week in a small room in the hospital. Bit by bit, the program grew, and she went into oncology nursing full-time until she retired a few years ago.
She’s still involved in the cancer community, though, through WOW — the annual Way Out Women snowmachine ride, which raises money for cancer patients. With a license plate that reads WOWLDY and years of T-shirts from the event, she said she’s identified with the event year-round.
“People call me the WOW lady,” she said. “I get calls all the time about it.”
Although the disease is still a challenge, cancer care is markedly easier to access on the Kenai Peninsula these days. Residents can stay on the peninsula for the entirety of their treatment. Central Peninsula Hospital now operates a full infusion center, allowing patients to receive outpatient chemotherapy, and the Peninsula Radiation Oncology Center — which opened in 2013 — specializes in radiation treatment.
Central Peninsula Hospital has just completed its addition of a new infusion treatment area as well, with space set aside to attract a medical oncologist. Providence Seward Medical & Care Center has a mammography clinic once a month courtesy of its affiliation with Providence Imaging Center in Anchorage. South Peninsula Hospital offers its own infusion services and a medical oncologist.
Peninsula residents no longer have to go to Anchorage for cancer services if they don’t want to. Peninsula Radiation Oncology Center even has a therapy dog, L.C., on staff to help with stress of treatments.
A survey completed for Central Peninsula Hospital in 2012 by the University of New England’s Center for Community and Public Health identified cancer care as the number one request from peninsula residents. In 2012, more than 8 percent of peninsula residents said they had had cancer at some point in their lives, according to the survey.
Beyond just the treatment, the challenge also belongs to the families. Cancer takes active management, stopping many from working, and the families have to drive the patient to and from appointments, often while juggling kids or other responsibilities. It can get overwhelming.
That’s where support from events like WOW comes in. The Central Peninsula Health Foundation, which handles the finances for the event, takes in the donations and disburses them as grants to families of cancer patients.
Normally, families have the option to apply for grants through federal welfare programs or other monetary assistance, but it is a lot of paperwork and often the funds are restricted — they have to be spent on certain things. The CPHF grants can be spent on anything from food to rent to shoes. In 2014, the foundation reported that it gave grants to 126 individuals, a total of approximately $124,326.
Lopeman said that was her goal twelve years ago when she and friends came up with the idea for WOW. Watching patients struggle, she wanted to do something about it. As they were sitting around a campfire in the Caribou Hills, a friend suggested doing a snowmachine ride.
The event has blossomed into an enormous, community-wide affair. Sportsman’s Warehouse in Soldotna allows the event to use its gun wall during a registration drive, which will take place this year on Feb. 18; Kaladi Brothers donates coffee; the Moose is Loose Bakery in Soldotna donates pastries for the continental breakfast on the day of the event, she said. This year, the organizers are shooting for $120,000, Lopeman said.
The event will take place Feb. 27, with a reception the night before on Feb. 26. Registrants can sign up in teams, and the organizers will take registration all the way up until the morning of the event, which is hosted at Freddie’s Roadhouse on Oilwell Road in the Caribou Hills. The event has always featured wild costumes, but this year there will be a theme — animated movies, Lopeman said. This year, the event is being held in honor of Roy Baldwin, a longtime Sterling resident known as “the Diamond Willow Guy.” Baldwin died due to cancer in March 2015.
Snowmachining is near and dear to Lopeman’s heart — not that she’s always been good at it. Her first ride was “a disaster,” she said, and she swore off snowmachining for good. Four snowmachines later, she said she is addicted. After her husband retires, the couple plans to move and build a home in the Caribou Hills.
There’s plenty of snow up there this year, Lopeman said. Last year, there was none, so the WOW organizers had to get creative. However, there was still a healthy turnout and the event raised $116,000.
It’s her way of helping those in need. Those stories stick with her, and so do the patients — sometimes they still call, she said.
“I had a call yesterday from a gentleman I treated six or eight or ten years ago,” Lopeman said. “He said, ‘I don’t know if you remember me, but I just wanted to tell you I talk about you all the time and you saved my life. I wouldn’t have gotten through without you.’ And then he told me his name, and I do remember him.”
Reach Elizabeth Earl at firstname.lastname@example.org.