Making life easier for cancer patients is the goal of the new Elizabeth Pfriem SWIM Center for Cancer Care at St. Vincent's Medical Center.

From initial diagnosis to providing survivors consultations with nutritionists and exercise physiologists, the four-level 125,000-square-foot facility has it all. The goal, according to Dr. Stuart Marcus, senior vice president and chairman of the Department of Oncology, was to bring "all of the elements of cancer care under one roof."

A ribbon-cutting took place Saturday, and earlier last week there was a private reception honoring the building's namesake, whose major donation to St. Vincent's served as the cornerstone of its capital campaign to fund the new center and other major areas to the medical center.

There's a portion -- the Ambulatory Infusion Center -- that resembles a ritzy spa; artwork is sprinkled over the walls on each of the four floors, and panel lights above the Novalis Tx Radiosurgery and Varian Rapid Arc radiotherapy technology machine, located in the radiation therapy area, are painted to resemble a serene nature scene from the vantage point of someone looking skyward. It is little things like that, Marcus said, in addition to everything the center provides, that make it a top-notch place.

"We place a special emphasis on a lot of the spiritual support services that patients need, as well as their families, because what you have to remember," Marcus said, "is that it's not only the patient that's affected by cancer, it's also their families and so we've made special efforts for their families to be welcomed here and to receive any things they might need to help them deal with this illness."

He added, "We have spacious waiting rooms. The cancer center is built with a healing environment in mind, so that there's a lot of comfort here. There's a healing garden, where patients and their families can sit outside during the warm weather. We have a meditation room that's open for patients or their families so that if they want to just come and get away from the noise or have a little quiet time, we have a separate space for them, which is a little more spiritual.

"We have spa services, [and will also offer] massage therapy, music therapy and art therapy."

In the infusion center, there are a number of different "pods" and sliding glass doors coated with frosted leafy patterns that separate patients. However, once patients become comfortable with one another, they can slide the door open and share their space. The patients can also walk out into the healing garden from the infusion center. When it is nice out, they will actually be able to take their chemotherapy treatments there.

Down the hallway from the infusion center is a kitchen, where staff will have the ability to demonstrate healthy cooking and healthy meal planning for patients. The Elizabeth Pfriem SWIM Center for Cancer Care also has a resource library and a boutique where cancer patients or members of their families can purchase wigs and mastectomy garments. Services encompass the full spectrum of cancer care and include community outreach, screening and prevention, diagnostic services, surgical and medical oncology, radiation therapy, interventional oncology, clinical trials, dedicated inpatient and outpatient cancer units, palliative care, pain management, integrative oncology, support services, patient and provider education and survivorship.

Marcus pointed out that St. Vincent's always offered excellent services, but in the past everything wasn't consolidated for the convenience of the patient. The consolidation, according to hospital officials, lowers anxiety levels. Services were scattered prior to building the new center, which required patients to go to different areas of the hospital. Also, patients often had to go off-site to see their medical oncologist. Now however, medical oncologists will have an office within the center.

What is new on-site is the combined Novalis Tx Radiosurgery and Varian Rapid Arc radiotherapy technology machine. Both represent a new standard in radiotherapy and radiosurgery, offering advanced technologies that deliver precise, fast treatment. Novalis Tx Radiosurgery uses a treatment beam contoured to the exact shape of one's tumor, precisely delivering treatment, while protecting surrounding healthy tissue. And a treatment lasts just two minutes, not hours.

The Rapid Arc aspect of the machine is a new form of image-guided, intensity-modulated radiation therapy (IMRT). Image guidance, according to hospital officials, improves tumor targeting and IMRT shapes the radiation dose so that it conforms closely to the three-dimensional shape of the tumor. This results in more dose to the tumor and less to the surrounding healthy tissue. Also, Rapid Arc quickly delivers a complete IMRT treatment with a single rotation of the treatment machine around the patient.

Another new piece of technology at St. Vincent's is the Positron Emission Tomography (PET) combined with Computed Tomography (CT), a powerful imaging tool used primarily in oncology to detect cancer based on the metabolic activity of the cells present in the tumor. PET/CT scans can often identify evidence of cancer in the body before a change is seen clinically on other imaging modalities.

"We can see the exact areas where there's increased activity," Marcus said. "It's a very powerful way for us to detect cancer."

The PET/CT machine at St. Vincent's is the only one in the Bridgeport area, according to medical center staff. It replaces a mobile trailer -- shared with other hospitals -- that used to visit St. Vincent's once a week. Before the acquisition of the PET/CT machine, patients used to have to venture out into the parking lot to get scanned.

Marcus said the new cancer center potentially eliminates the need for a cancer patient to see, for example, a surgeon in Trumbull, a medical oncologist in Fairfield and a radiation oncologist in Bridgeport. Making those different visits, to different sites, is not only an inconvenience for the patient as well as family members, but it's also time-consuming. Marcus said, "the time of diagnosis to treatment can often take weeks until all the appointments are made and everything is coordinated and put in place."

"In a center like this," he said, "we have the ability to see certain patients in very expediated fashion, where, in an ideal situation, they'll be able to see a surgeon, a medical oncologist, a radiation oncologist, sometimes on the same day, and have a treatment plan developed during their initial visit."

Marcus added that cancer centers similar to the one now at St. Vincent's are developing around the country because it's been shown that "treating patients like that does improve their overall outcomes."

Approximately 900 new cancer cases are diagnosed and treated at St. Vincent's Medical Center annually.

Cindy Czaplinski, director of the Department of Oncology, said Friday that "the ability for us to be all in one building will be huge because right now we're kind of separated, so now we can all be together with the patients, with the physicians, so we can easily communicate."

"We don't have to travel far to communicate. We don't really have to always pick up the phone. We can actually see them person to person."

Elizabeth Pfriem, for whom the cancer center is named, didn't attend Saturday's ribbon-cutting. Described as a shy and unassuming person, she has not been shy in her support of St. Vincent's. Pfriem, the major donor for the cancer center, has been a part of the St. Vincent's community for more than 30 years. Her husband John, who died of cancer in the 1980s, was the former publisher of the Connecticut Post. Pfriem subsequently became the paper's publisher after her husband's passing.

Ron Bianchi, president of the St. Vincent's Foundation and corporate senior vice president of St. Vincent's Medical Center, said during a phone interview yesterday that Pfriem is "someone who has taken a very large number of needs in the Greater Bridgeport area and supported them throughout her life."

"She is an extremely generous person who works to see things done better," he said, "and when she adopts an organization she really becomes the leader in making it better."

Pfriem's involvement in the cancer center goes beyond a financial donation.

"She's been involved from the planning stages right through the construction and to the completion," said Bianchi. "She has provided encouragement and support."

Bianchi said when Pfriem's husband and other family members were being treated for cancer, they didn't have resources like St. Vincent's now has, and Pfriem "was very anxious to make these resources become a reality in the region."

The Elizabeth Pfriem Center for Cancer Care will open its doors to the public on Feb. 1.