Center marks three decades of cancer treatment

Photo courtesy Sharp Grossmont Hospital Austin Cameron and Dr. David Bodkin.

In July 1993 Sharp Grossmont Hospital opened the David & Donna Long Cancer Center after the late Dr. David Long and his wife Donna donated $2 million to build a world-class cancer center. This year, the Center is celebrating its 30th anniversary and is celebrating its growth in providing high-quality cancer care in the community.

“The David & Donna Long Cancer Center has served our East County community well for 30 years,” says Dr. David Bodkin, a board-certified hematologist and oncologist who has worked at the cancer center since it opened. “Pure and simple, we provide not only state-of-the-art care but also cutting-edge cancer therapies right in the neighborhood.”

In reflection, 20 years ago, professional NASCAR driver Austin Cameron was diagnosed with a rare form of blood cancer, precursor T-cell lymphoblastic lymphoma, an aggressive type of cancer.

Living in the Blossom Valley area, Cameron said racing has always been a part of his life.

“I’ve been racing go carts since I was 8,” he said. “I did really well. Won lots of national championships. Progressed to Formula 1 racing, then started racing stock cars. I raced at the El Cajon Speedway, Willow Springs, and then graduated into the NASCAR Winston West Series in the late 90s, racing with the likes of Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch.”

Cameron drove the No. 16 NAPA Auto Parts Chevrolet in the Winston West Series, where he took the Rookie of the Year Award. He raced at Irwindale Speedway, collecting his first series win in 1999, and continued to be a rising star in the world of racing, earning multiple titles.

“We had just come off a 10-win season and knocked everybody’s socks off,” he said. “At the very inaugural race of the year in Las Vegas in 2003, I had had this terrible cough and felt a little under the weather, but I just thought it was a cold or flu. I was having trouble breathing and just could not catch my breath. I had an uncharacteristic night, and ended up getting black flagged for rough driving, and crashed the car. We went home that Sunday evening, and my girlfriend, now wife said I needed to go see a doctor.”

Cameron said he went to an urgent care in East County, they took an x-ray of his chest, and sent him to the Sharp Grossmont emergency room. That is when they told him he had cancer in his chest, the size of a whoopie cushion.

“I totally caught me off guard,” he said. “I really do not remember the next couple of days. Immediately I got in touch with the Sharp Grossmont cancer center, and I met with Dr. Bodkin. He said it was a very aggressive, fast-growing cancer. Basically, it was an enlarged lymph node in my chest, and it was squeezing off one of my lungs.”

Cameron said that this cancer was something the Center had not dealt with as it usually affects children ages 8-14. He was 26 at the time. He said Bodkin talked to several colleagues of his to come up with a treatment program for him.

“Within two weeks of getting diagnosed, I started chemotherapy,” he said. “It was a very long two-year treatment. I was at the pinnacle of my racing career and had a lot of opportunities before me. Everything shut down when I got cancer. The biggest thing I wanted to do was to kick cancer’s ass and to get back in the driver’s seat. Racing is what I latched on to and that was driving me to get through the chemotherapy, take it on full force. I believe attitude is nine-tenths of the game with cancer.”

Cameron said nobody at the cancer center had worked with someone who wanted to go back into a racecar, and as soon as the doctor signed him off, he was back in the driver’s seat.

“Dr. Bodkin and all the nurses, they are the ones that made that happen,” he said. “I won one of the biggest races of my career, the Toyota All-Star Showdown at the Irwindale Track in Los Angeles. I won a Toyota truck, I had no hair, had Dr. Bodkin and several of my nurses up there in the stands with my parents.”

Cameron said all this made him take stock in his life and appreciate what you have.

“My girlfriend then, and now my wife Rachelle of 18 years, we have three beautiful kids and have a good life,” he said. “I have been able to be on the advocacy side of cancer in many different ways.”

Cameron said he and Dr. Bodkin are now friends and see each other a couple of times a year.

“I was able to beat cancer and I feel that the treatment that I got at Sharp Grossmont Hospital was second to none,” he said. “I am just happy to be around and able to advocate for the cancer center and to advocate for cancer patients.”

Cameron said after chemotherapy, all the blood transfusions, radiation, that he has been cancer free for 20 years now.

“The reason behind my decision to Grossmont for me was the level of support that I had with Dr. Bodkin, the team, and the hospital,” he said. “I am an East County guy living in the Blossom Valley area, so it was important to me to have treatment close to my home. The connection that I had with Dr. Bodkin did it for me. He had my best interests in mind. There was a lot of collaboration with other doctors and hospitals throughout.”

Bodkin said he first came to Sharp Grossmont in 1990, covering for a colleague’s practice who was in the reserves and had been called for a tour in Desert
Shield. Between 1990 and 1993, he worked off and on at the hospital and that is where he heard about the upcoming one-stop cancer center in East County. He said in 1991 Sharp Healthcare did an association with Grossmont and there was some concern that the plans for the cancer center might not happen.

“But the opposite happened,” he said. “Sharp was very pleased and went along with those plans to build the comprehensive cancer center.”

Bodkin said the affiliation with Sharp, a large health organization helped with the building and growth of the cancer center and brought together medical oncology and a 26-chair infusion center and a brand-new radiation machine.

“The merging really helped and being right adjacent to the hospital, on the campus we involved in so many areas with surgeons, pathologists, radiologists all together in one location. We developed cancer conferences,” he said. “Over the years it has grown, and with the growth of Sharp, we have come together as a comprehensive cancer care network. The vision on the 1980s was to treat our East County patients in the community and that is what we have strived to do in these three decades.”

Bodkin said with the doctors and support staff, the growth and quality of care at the cancer center has been amazing.

“Grossmont’s medical staff, and I have been to about 10 medical staffs and hospitals in San Diego and none of them have the collegiality and camaraderie that I see with the Grossmont medical staff,” he said. “That is real important. The referrals and how patients are cared for during hospitalization.”

When Cameron came to Bodkin, he said that he was a young man, extremely healthy, and considered him a professional athlete, and first saw him in the emergency room where they found he had a large mass of inflammation of lymph nodes.

“He went and got several other opinions from across the country and decided to get his care at Sharp Grossmont,” he said. “It was not easy. It was a rigorous induction regiment for this leukemia. Upfront he had chemotherapy, radiation therapy, and after we induced him into remission we went into consolidation and maintenance therapy, so it was a two-year treatment plan he had to undergo. He was a great patient. He had great support from our staff. They were in their 20s, just like he was. He got a lot of support also. His family has been in the area for a long time, were supportive and philanthropic in East County, and his family and friends supported him well.”

Bodkin said it is always wonderful to see a patient go into remission and stay in remission and that he has followed up with Cameron over the years.

“That is how it is with many of our patients,” he said. “We have had a lot of good stories over the past three decades.”

Bodkin said that through the years, the cancer center has participated in groundbreaking drug trials, always advancing treatments. He said during his tenure at the center, he has taken care of three generations of families. Bodkin said though there are several wonderful cancer treatment centers in the county, that he believes Sharp Grossmont is up to par with any of them.

“We have always been involved in clinical trials, state-of-the-art technology and equipment, so not only are patients treated in the best possible way, but also in their own community in East County. It is a lot of hard work, but many great people have done great things over the years. People come and go, but the sustained excellence, with the support that we get from the hospital administration, with Sharp Healthcare building this system-wide collaborative cancer program with their other two Sharp entities,”

Bodkin said the community and the Grossmont Hospital Foundation has helped the cancer center grow, and with their help has helped the cancer center to continue to progress.

Cameron is just one of the thousands of patients who have been cared for at the David & Donna Long Cancer Center, which is nationally accredited for comprehensive services from genetic testing and counseling to advanced radiation therapies, groundbreaking clinical trials, and supportive services. In late 2020, the cancer center completed a new, modern interior renovation focused on elevating the patient experience.