A Place of Hope and Healing

Fred & Pamela Buffett Cancer Center Celebrates 5-year Anniversary

Nebraska artist Mary Zicafoose created the two tapestries that hang in the lobby of the Fred & Pamela Buffett Cancer Center. One piece says “Healing,” and the other, pictured above, says “Hope.” The words are written in 15 languages.

By Connie White

Two giant tapestries hang just inside the front doors of the Fred & Pamela Buffett Cancer Center. In 15 languages, two words are woven into the tapestries. One piece says “Healing.” The other says “Hope.” The artwork, created by Nebraska artist Mary Zicafoose, acts as a powerful message for patients from all over the world who come to the cancer center for treatment.

This is a place of hope.

Everything about the sprawling $323 million facility is dedicated to caring for patients, from the inspirational artwork in the world-class Healing Arts Program, to the computer tablets by hospital beds so patients can review their medical records or message their doctor, to the “bench to bedside” treatment approach that rapidly moves new therapies from the research lab to patient treatments.

Five years of changing and saving lives

The Fred & Pamela Buffett Cancer Center opened its doors to patients June 5, 2017.

To mark the cancer center’s five-year anniversary, director Ken Cowan, M.D., Ph.D., talked recently about what led to the center’s creation and its focus on cancer research and treatment.

“There’s no other cancer center built like this in the world,” he said in an interview. “We do have patients arriving from across our region, across our state, across the Midwest, across our country, and sometimes even from foreign countries coming here for special therapies.”

The cancer center — a partnership between the University of Nebraska Medical Center and its clinical partner, Nebraska Medicine — is the only National Cancer Institute-designated cancer center in Nebraska.

The center was made possible by philanthropic donors, as well as funding from the State of Nebraska, City of Omaha and Douglas County.

Over the last five years, 15,306 people have received care in the 108-patient C.L. Werner Cancer Hospital, and 44,812 patients have been treated in the center’s outpatient clinics.

The facility has seen a 114% increase in the number of patients who have taken part in cancer clinical trials in the past five years. Fifty-six new physicians and scientists have joined the cancer center or will soon. Cancer researchers have been awarded more than $185 million in new grant funding, and a Pancreatic Cancer Center of Excellence has been established.

Cowan drew inspiration for the Fred & Pamela Buffett Cancer Center from the 21 years he spent at the National Cancer Institute in Bethesda, Maryland, prior to coming to UNMC in 1999 to serve as the director of the Eppley Cancer Center, which preceded the Fred & Pamela Buffett Cancer Center.

At the National Cancer Institute, Cowan oversaw laboratory researchers and clinical staff working together in Building 10, the largest clinical research hospital in the world.

Cowan wanted to create a space like it at UNMC, where researchers in the lab and clinicians who treat patients work side by side. He wanted the researchers, clinicians and patients all to come in the same front doors and ride the same elevators.

“One-stop shopping” for patients

So UNMC set out to create a facility to do that. On a recent tour, the soaring lobby of the Fred & Pamela Buffett Cancer Center was bustling, with patients checking in at the front desk or relaxing in comfy chairs near the entrance as staff in green scrubs walked to meetings in the conference room or stopped for lunch at the coffee shop.

Before the facility opened, UNMC’s cancer research labs were spread among eight buildings. Today, most cancer research is housed in the 10-story Suzanne and Walter Scott Cancer Research Tower, which has 98 laboratories and is connected to the C.L. Werner Cancer Hospital.

UNMC’s cancer clinicians previously were located in six buildings; now, the Fred & Pamela Buffett Cancer Center provides “one-stop shopping” for patients, Cowan said.

Before a patient comes in for their first appointment, oncologists, pathologists, radiologists and other specialists meet for a “tumor board” to discuss the patient’s case and recommend a treatment plan. Researchers are encouraged to attend, so they can hear directly from the clinicians and report on the future of research and therapies.

Cowan said the new facility provides exceptional care because staff are specially trained to understand the needs of cancer patients, who can be severely immunocompromised.

“When you work in this building, you’re taking care of only cancer patients, and whether you’re a nurse, pharmacist or environmental services person cleaning rooms, you know that these patients have very special problems, whether it’s pain, infection or their cancer,” Cowan said.

The Fred & Pamela Buffett Cancer Center is built around a “pod” design, with each area housing offices and labs focused on one kind of cancer. During the tour, Cowan stopped on the eighth floor outside the hospital wing. The offices for surgical oncologists specializing in pancreatic cancer were just across the hall, with the pancreatic cancer research labs steps away.

Common break rooms are located on each floor to encourage researchers and clinicians to eat lunch or grab a cup of coffee together. “If form follows function as architects always tell us,” Cowan said, “our goal is to create better opportunities for collaboration between clinicians and researchers.”

 

Targeting cancer with precision medicine

Cowan said cancer research today focuses on “precision medicine” by examining the disease at the molecular level to determine what genetic changes are causing cancer cells to grow.

He described chemotherapy and radiation as “toxic therapies” that kill cancer cells but have side effects for normal cells. The future of cancer treatment is targeted therapies, such as drugs that zero in on the abnormal cancer genes or turn on the patient’s own immune system to attack cancer cells.

Ken Cowan, M.D., Ph.D., director of Fred & Pamela Buffett Cancer Center

“We want to be at the cutting edge of developing new ways of diagnosing cancer, treating cancer, preventing cancer and finding ways to improve survivorship after your diagnosis to get you back to normal life as quickly as possible,” he said.

At the same time, the Fred & Pamela Buffett Cancer Center aims to help patients and their families cope with a cancer diagnosis. The center’s Healing Arts Program is intended to provide hope to patients and wellness for staff.

Cowan describes the program, which includes art displays, live music performances and poetry written by cancer survivors, as “truly world class and a first of its kind.” Its centerpiece is the two-story Chihuly Sanctuary, a light-filled meditation space designed by artist Dale Chihuly.

“For every patient who hears the words ‘you have cancer,’ when they’re given that diagnosis, it changes their lives forever,” Cowan said. “It does help to provide hope. It does help to provide comfort.”

He credits private donors with making the Fred & Pamela Buffett Cancer Center possible.

The cancer center was named in recognition of a gift from Pamela Buffett through her foundation, the Rebecca Susan Buffett Foundation. Pamela Buffett’s husband, Fred “Fritz” Buffett, died in 1997 after fighting kidney cancer. He was the first cousin of Omaha investor Warren Buffett. Other founding benefactors include the Suzanne & Walter Scott Foundation and CL and Rachel Werner.

“Donor gifts are critically important to the success of this building. We are incredibly grateful to everyone who contributed,” Cowan said.

“We want to be at the cutting edge of developing new ways of diagnosing cancer, treating cancer, preventing cancer and finding ways to improve survivorship after your diagnosis to get you back to normal life as quickly as possible.”

‘I’m Secretly Nebraskan’

Trustee Discovers her Nebraska Roots and Honors her Great-Grandfather

Gwinneth “Daisy” Berexa is not an alumna of UNL, but she discovered a connection to the university.

By Robyn Murray

There were times when Daisy Berexa thought she’d been “delivered by Martians” to her family. Politically, she just never quite fit in.

“My family’s fairly liberal,” she said with a chuckle.

Then one day, Berexa learned about her great-grandfather. She had never met him, but she found out from chatting with a relative that they had a lot in common. 

“We got into some interesting political debate, and I made some comment,” she said. “And he looked at me and said, ‘Well, that’s very interesting. You’re clearly not at all like your mom. Actually, you have a lot of the same traits as your great-grandfather.”’

That man was John Davidson Clark, a successful attorney and banker who became vice president of Standard Oil and served as an economic adviser to President Harry Truman. He was also a graduate of the University of Nebraska–Lincoln, class of 1905.

“He really believed in empowering people,” Berexa said. “He believed we have a responsibility to try and provide better opportunities and a better life for people, and that includes focusing on human rights and education and leveling the playing field.”

Berexa knew she wanted to learn more. Clark’s life was so different from the one she had known. He was born in Colorado and spent much of his life in Cheyenne, Wyoming. She was born in Colombia, South America, and had bounced around New York and Washington, D.C., as a kid. Clark had met his wife at UNL and returned to Nebraska later in life. 

“I knew nothing about Nebraska,” Berexa said. “I knew nothing about the university. But I thought it might be kind of cool if I learned a little bit more about it, about what they were like, what kind of people they were when they were young.”

 

John D. Clark served as the second dean of UNL’s College of Business Administration, beginning in 1941.

Berexa’s curiosity prompted her to reach out, and with the help of the University of Nebraska Foundation she discovered more than she could have imagined. The foundation’s Joye Fehringer put together an album of all the photos and information she could find about Clark’s time on campus. Berexa learned he not only attended UNL, but he also returned to the university in 1941 to serve as the second dean of the College of Business Administration. She read a poem he had written his wife-to-be, and she learned that he’d played on the all-class champion basketball team in 1902 and that he was methodical — just like she is.

“It’s as though I felt their presence all around me and filled a part of me inside, a piece that had always been missing,” she said at the time. “It was an amazing feeling.”

“A university where people have chances”

A campus history guide gave Berexa a tour, and she visited the building where Clark used to work and saw his photo hanging in the hall. She said she felt an instant connection.

“I jokingly say to people that I’m secretly Nebraskan,” she said with a laugh. “But there’s a part of me that actually feels that way, because I just loved it there. And I love the people, and I loved what the school stands for.”

Berexa is no stranger to great schools. Prior to a successful career in finance and business, she attended the Ivy League’s Columbia University in New York. But she said Nebraska is unique, and she loves the way the university welcomes everyone.

“It’s a university where people have chances,” she said. “It’s so student focused. It’s welcoming and affordable … I was massively impressed by the amount of hard work that the university does to provide an opportunity for people. I thought that was phenomenal.”

Berexa also learned that Clark believed in “paying it forward” and had established a scholarship to help the “worthy and needy” attend UNL. Berexa set up her own scholarship in his honor — the John D. Clark Courage and Commitment Fund for students majoring in economics or political science or minoring in human rights. Later she established an additional scholarship in honor of her great-grandmother, Joyce Broady Clark. Now she serves as a trustee at the foundation, where she gets to tell people about the place her great-grandparents loved.

“Nebraska seems like one of the best-kept secrets in town,” Berexa said. “One of the wonderful things about being a trustee is that I get to talk about this place. I get to tell people all these surprising things that nobody knows about. I think that’s our biggest job, that’s really what we should be charged with — to go out and be ambassadors.”

Berexa said her great-grandfather could have gone anywhere, but he chose to come back to Nebraska because there’s no place like it.

“There was something about it he really loved.” she said.

It’s as though I felt their presence all around me and filled a part of me inside, a piece that had always been missing.”