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Fighting the good fight

Sitting in a small garden-and-koi-pond oasis at Sierra Nevada Memorial Hospital, Dr. Bill Newsom gazes intently as he recalls almost 30 years practicing in Grass Valley.

Today, the cancer center he founded in 1995 sees between 400 and 450 patients a year, but back when he started, there weren’t enough cancer patients to occupy his time, let alone a whole team.

“When I came to Grass Valley there wasn’t enough work, so I did internal medicine for the first 10 years,” Newsom said.



He had done his residency at the University of California, San Francisco, specializing in oncology and hematology – cancer and blood medicine. His wife, Christine, had studied internal medicine.

In 1981, they were expecting their first child and looking for a place to settle down. They found Grass Valley.




“We wanted to come to a more congenial place to have kids,” Newsom said.

At that time, the science of treating cancer didn’t warrant a cancer center, either, he said.

“In the bad old days, we had very few tools to treat patients,” Newsom added.

But science progressed, western Nevada County grew and both Newsom and hospital officials realized they would need to make a big push to get the expensive equipment and attract the specialists they needed to treat cancer locally.

In 1995, the hospital built the cancer center, complete with chemotherapy and radiology treatment, saving patients daily trips to Auburn, the next closest center. More recently, the new breast imaging center offers equipment specifically for the early detection of breast cancer.

In November, the cancer center will break ground on a new area for “gamma knife” treatment, the next level of cancer treatment, Newsom said.

“This hospital has been accredited a comprehensive cancer center. Only 10 percent of the hospitals in the country have met those requirements,” Newsom said.

Looking forward, the next big step is cancer treatment beyond chemotherapy, where treatments target cancer cells more specifically, he added.

While the cancer center is seeing hundreds of patients a year, its numbers are down by about 25 percent, Newsom said.

“Nobody knows why, but I think people in the down economy aren’t going to their primary care doctor and aren’t getting diagnosed,” Newsom said. “There are definitely health impacts from the recession.”

To help people take care of themselves, the center is offering reduced-cost mammograms and free screenings for prostate and skin cancer, Newsom added. To find out more about those programs, call Ayse Turkseven at (530) 274-6644.

As Newsom speaks, he presses down with his right hand on his left, which shakes faintly.

The tremor is a symptom of Parkinson’s Disease, a nervous system disorder. For some people it’s progressive and unpredictable. For Newsom, it’s stable and mild under the control of medication.

“People with cancer have always amazed me, saying the experience enriched their lives. Now that I have this, all those things are true, I’ve learned and grown a lot,” Newsom said. “I feel like I can understand the predicament of the patients a little better.”

At first the disease controlled his life, Newsom said, but now he has adapted to it, doing just about everything he did before.

“It’s eerie to be inside a body with a body I learned about in school,” Newsom said. “But now I’m getting on with my life. The only thing I can’t do that I used to is play the guitar.”

Music extends to others in his family. Christine Newsom is a classically trained pianist; their son, Peter, plays the keyboard and drums. Daughter Joanna plays piano and harp, sings and composes, touring the world to wide acclaim. The couple’s youngest daughter, Emily, is studying geophysics at the University of Washington.

To contact Staff Writer Greyson Howard, e-mail ghoward@theunion.com or call (530) 477-4237.


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