It seems only fitting as we spotlight the war on breast cancer this month that we also spotlight a local hero at the front lines of that battle.
Mel Cheney is retiring as executive director of Roseburg’s Community Cancer Center at the end of the year. He was hired to help put that nonprofit organization on the right path a little more than 12 years ago and it appears he will leave it in far better shape than he found it.
“I’ve been thinking about retiring for about a year,” Cheney told me by phone last week. “I discussed it with my wife Elaine and told the board in March.”
The organization’s executive board has narrowed its search for a replacement for Cheney to two finalists it hopes to interview next month. One of those candidates is Tammy Hagedorn, who currently serves as director of clinical services. She’s been with the center since 1999.
Governed by a 30-member board (by way of full disclosure, I am a board member), the Community Cancer Center was opened more than 30 years ago when a group of community leaders decided it was time we took care of our own cancer patients.
“These people got tired of having their friends and family members travel 65 miles each way, five days a week to Eugene or Portland for daily radiation treatments,” Cheney explained. “So they came together to develop this organization.”
The center is one of only a handful in the country that operates as a charitable organization and is community owned and operated, according to Cheney. “We don’t turn away any patients who need treatment because of a lack of insurance or ability to pay,” he said. “All of the donations are for the benefit of the patients in this area.”
The center was the first radiation therapy facility in the state to be accredited by the American College of Radiology. It is also accredited by the American College of Surgeons and Commission on Cancer, according to its website.
Cheney said the cancer center is in excellent shape today, despite some bumps along the road. “We have a $10 million building that is fully paid for and a 50-year lease that is also paid for,” he said.
The center sees around 400 new patients per year, mostly for radiation treatment.
Cheney said financial planning has been difficult because of the changing winds in Washington, D.C., where Medicare reimbursement calculations are determined. “You never know from year to year if you are going to get a 28 percent cut, or if they’ll change their minds and come back with a different number,” he said. “A couple of years ago Congress left town without deciding what the reimbursement would be and nobody received any payments for 10 days. How do you run a business like that?”
Cheney came to Roseburg from Arkansas, where he served as vice president of patient services at a similar community-owned and operated radiation center. “I’ve been doing radiation for 38 years now and it’s time to pursue other things,” he said. “When you pursue a career and have a family you make sacrifices and now I want to fulfill the bucket list that is out there.”
He said coming to Roseburg was a dream come true.
“There are lots of opportunities in life that you can just never express how thankful you are that people took a chance on you and trusted you,” the 62-year-old Cheney told me. “It’s gratifying when those people say you did a good job. It makes it all worthwhile.”
Part of Cheney’s “bucket list” includes spending more time with his grown children. His son Nathan, a 2009 graduate of Roseburg High, was commissioned Saturday as an officer in the U.S. Marine Corps.
“He graduated from University of Oregon this summer and then from Officer Candidate School,” said the proud father. “He will serve as a 2nd lieutenant.”
Mel Cheney served with the Army’s military police in Vietnam and has also been a huge advocate for local veterans. His service to Roseburg extends far beyond the Community Cancer Center. He was on the Roseburg City Council, Roseburg Urban Renewal Agency board, airport commission and League of Oregon Cities.
On a personal note, Mel was one of the first people I met when I arrived here a little more than a year ago. He’s the kind of guy who never seems to have a bad day (at least not on the surface) and just has a way of making you feel good about life.
He said he and his wife plan to stay in Roseburg after he retires and that’s a good thing. We can ill afford to lose good people. I wish him nothing but the best and thank him for leaving our Community Cancer Center in better shape than he found it.
You can’t ask for any more than that.
Jeff Ackerman is publisher of The News-Review. He can be reached at 541-957-4263 or firstname.lastname@example.org.