The Cancer Center, which began nearly 70 years ago in rented space in the basement of Cottage Hospital, is about to be reborn as a 55,000 square foot state of the art facility, unlike anything else available between San Francisco and Los Angeles.

The Ridley-Tree Cancer Center (so named in honor of Lady Leslie Ridley-Tree's $10.7 million donation to the project) will offer oncology treatment, prevention programs, and research all under one roof, in what supporters say will make travel outside the county unnecessary for anyone affected by cancer.

Few people in the Valley seem to be aware of this resource, however, and that's something Santa Ynez resident Priscilla Higgins hopes to change. She's a member of the the Cancer Foundation of Santa Barbara board of directors. She's hosting a "friendraiser" at her home next week.

"In the Valley, sometimes people look at things in Santa Barbara as being a little far away. This is for the whole county. I think it would be great if people here would be involved. This is something that will benefit the whole community," she said.

The Cancer Foundation has raised $46.2 million for the new Cancer Center, according to Major Gifts Officer Lori Willis. 

"The doctors we have at the Cancer Center are the best and the brightest in the United States," she said. "We have recruited from Harvard. We've recruited from MD Anderson, UCLA, USC and Stanford. You can live in the Valley and just go to Santa Barbara and get as good of care if not better than any place in the country."

This has personal meaning for Higgins, who holds her Ph.D. in physics and has lived in the Valley with her husband, Roger Higgins, since 2000.

"I know first hand what it's like to be diagnosed," she said. "I was diagnosed with chronic lymphocytic leukemia in 1999. There was that initial shock but then I was one of those really fortunate people who has never needed treatment. It's sort of an indolent leukemia. I'm in perfectly good health."

Higgins said she also appreciates that through the Cancer Center, she can have her biannual checkups in Solvang with Dr. Jonathan Berkowitz. That office also offers chemotherapy, social services, and genetic and nutrition counseling.

From its humble beginnings in 1949, the Cancer Center grew but in three separate rented spaces in Santa Barbara. In 2003, its fundraising arm, the Cancer Foundation of Santa Barbara, acquired 3.4 acres in downtown Santa Barbara as the site of the new stand-alone Cancer Center. The Cancer Center and Sansum Clinic merged in 2012, creating a joint organization to move the project forward and adding the Solvang office to the list of facilities. Groundbreaking and construction on the Center occurred a year ago. The grand opening and ribbon cutting is scheduled for September.

While hoping to raise more awareness at the upcoming Santa Ynez get-together, support for the Cancer Center has started to coalesce in the Valley. Dr. Virgil Elings donated $4 million late last year. Everyone who enters the facility will walk into the Elings Oncology Building, said Willis. Roger Bower, owner of Crown Point Vineyards in Happy Canyon, made what Higgins called "an extremely generous donation" in support of the Cancer Center's research facility. "The research center will be named in his honor," she added.

And for six years, the Rancheros Visitadores have worn pink during the iconic annual ride through Solvang. Club members raised over $135,000 in 2017 to fund research and support programs for breast cancer patients at the Cancer Center.

The Cancer Foundation's fundraising efforts don't stop with the completion of construction of the new facility, emphasized Higgins.

"You get treated at the Cancer Center irrespective of your ability to pay," she said. "That's one of the functions of the Cancer Foundation. If you are someone who cannot afford it, don't have health insurance - and it's so complicated these days - you will be treated. I think that is tremendous."

Cancer Foundation President Rick Scott and a few of the Center's physicians will be present at the informational event to discuss the new building and the future of cancer care in the county on Thursday, June 15 from 6 to 7:30 p.m. Wine and d'oeuvres will be served. There's no charge to attend.

For more information and to RSVP, email Lori Willis at lwillis@cfsb.org by Monday, June 12.

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