New cancer doctor joins practice in Soldotna

Peninsula Radiation Oncology Center patients may see another new face when they come for treatment in Soldotna.

Dr. William Magnuson joined the practice about two months ago, splitting his time between Anchorage and Soldotna. Born and raised in Anchorage, he lived in the Lower 48 for medical school and residency before returning to Alaska to work as a radiation oncologist.

“I love the natural beauty, I love the people, I love the way of life,” Magnuson said. “… I knew even from a young age that I always wanted to live here. I knew I wanted to become a physician, go receive advanced training and ultimately always end up back here.”

He originally left Alaska in his senior year of high school to play hockey in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Although he was drafted by the National Hockey League’s Colorado Avalanche and was offered a contract, he chose to study medicine instead. Magnuson attended Saint Louis University for medical school and the University of Wisconsin for residency before completing fellowships at Yale University, where he worked in stereotactic radiosurgery and stereotactic body radiotherapy, both noninvasive radiation treatments for functional abnormalities and tumors.

The choice to study oncology came after his mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. The experience put him in the patient’s shoes with her, he said.

“I think once you have sat on the other side of that discussion with a parent, a loved one or a sibling, you have a greater appreciation of what they are going through,” Magnuson said. “And so, from my perspective, I always knew that I wanted to become an oncologist to develop those really close relationships that you develop when someone is going through a really difficult period in their life.”

The group he joined, the Anchorage Associates in Radiation Medicine, owns and operates the Peninsula Radiation Oncology Center as well as the Providence Alaska Cancer Center, the Southeast Radiation Oncology Center and the Alaska Cyberknife Center, co-located with the Providence Alaska Cancer Center, which specifically treats patients with a noninvasive technology system called the Cyberknife. The group also plans to open the Mat-Su Valley Comprehensive Cancer Center in Palmer later this year.

The Cyberknife, which uses targeted laser radiation to treat cancer, is only available in Anchorage because of the expense and logistics of having and maintaining one, but the center in Soldotna has the equipment for patients to not have to go to Anchorage for their standard radiation therapy. Some studies have shown that the Cyberknife equipment can control early-stage tumors in five daily treatments, versus multiple weeks of standard radiation.

While the surgery can be very helpful, it is not necessary for all patients, Magnuson said. For most patients, the treatments available in Soldotna are enough.

“For those situations where patients are a candidate or require radiosurgery, they would have to go to Anchorage for their treatment,” Magnuson said. “But for the vast majority of things, we can provide the highest level of care right here in Soldotna.”

Physicians are based in Anchorage but travel back and forth to Soldotna. Magnuson said he will work in Soldotna about one week out of four.

Alaska’s geography challenges many patients to access medical treatment. When the Peninsula Radiation Oncology Center opened in Soldotna in 2013, patients no longer had to travel to Anchorage every day for weeks on end to receive cancer therapy. Some chemotherapy is offered in Homer, but patients in small, more rural communities like Ninilchik and Cooper Landing still have to travel long distances to get treatment in Soldotna.

Patients can sometimes have a hard time traveling with the side effects of radiation therapy, such as fatigue or skin irritation, Magnuson said. Social workers and home health care providers can provide assistance, as can programs that offer travel vouchers, he said.

Amid health care reform nationwide, providers are discussing how to provide the best care while lowering costs. One way oncologists are doing that is by studying how many radiation sessions a person needs for the treatment to be the most effective, Magnuson said.

Two studies published in August 2015 in the Journal of the American Medical Association Oncology found that women who had lumpectomies — surgery to remove a breast tumor — had fewer side effects and better quality of life with shorter radiation treatments than the traditional schedule. The conclusions concurred with another study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 2014.

“As a field, that’s something that we’re continually trying to do because we’re very cognizant of the cost of cancer care,” Magnuson said.

He said he looks forward to developing relationships with patients on the peninsula as they go through their treatments, and that the local medical community has “pleasantly surprised” him. Despite Alaska’s remoteness, many talented physicians choose to move here for the quality of life as well as work, he said.

“You have a lot of physicians who trained at some of the top programs in the country, yet they decide to come to Alaska to pursue … outdoor activities (and) a more relaxed quality of life,” Magnuson said. “So I think we are very fortunate as a state to have some incredibly talented physicians.”

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