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Photo Courtesy of Brenda Cortez

Four-year-old Aleena Gabriel, pictured here at a downtown park in August, and her mother, Brenda Cortez, have spent much of this year traveling back and forth from Bakersfield to Children's Hospital Central California in Madera for Aleena's cancer treatments. Cortez hopes her family and other families will be able to get more treatment in town with the opening of a pediatric oncology clinic at the Comprehensive Blood and Cancer Center in collaboration with UCLA.

The Comprehensive Blood and Cancer Center has announced that it will partner with UCLA to open a children's oncology program in Bakersfield next month.

CBCC, a freestanding cancer center, will partner with the Division of Pediatric Hematology and Oncology at the Mattel Children's Hospital UCLA. CBCC administrators told The Californian about the new endeavor Tuesday afternoon. The CBCC/UCLA Pediatric Oncology Program will be located at CBCC's Truxtun Avenue office and will open Nov. 20.

UCLA physicians will perform evaluations for pediatric oncology patients and follow-up visits, as well as telephone consultations with CBCC staff, according to a news release. The partnership will also include pediatric clinical trials.

Pediatric patients will be able to get chemotherapy and radiation treatments at CBCC, something that the center already does with a small number of pediatric patients, said Dr. Ravi Patel, CBCC's medical director and an associate clinical professor at UCLA.

Children will still need to travel for some services, such as bone marrow transplants, but the new offerings will reduce how often child cancer patients and their families have to leave town for care, Patel said.

The announcement comes as the CBCC celebrates its 25th anniversary. It's also the latest development in Bakersfield's growing cancer care market. In December, CBCC and Bakersfield's three Dignity Health hospitals announced a partnership for cancer services, and San Joaquin Community Hospital opened its own cancer center in April.

Dr. Navin Amin, chairman of family practice at Kern Medical Center, said the announcement is "exciting." Currently, most local children facing cancer have to travel to Los Angeles or Madera for cancer treatment, he said.

"It will be a very big help for a lot of families as well as for the patients if the services can be provided here locally," he said.

UCLA physicians lauded the partnership as well.

Dr. Ted Moore, professor and chief of Pediatric Oncology at UCLA, said he has treated many Kern County patients and it has always weighed on his heart to know that those families have to trek so far for care.

"You're talking about families that already have a tremendous burden of having a child with a diagnosis of cancer" and asking them to drive two hours down a sometimes treacherous road once or twice a week, Moore said.

UCLA physicians have already worked with CBCC to provide some care for pediatric patients, but this new partnership brings a missing piece to the puzzle -- the presence of a board-certified pediatric oncologist in Bakersfield.

Moore said he and another UCLA physician already partner with KMC to see pediatric patients in Bakersfield for half a day once a month, but this new arrangement will allow them to deliver more treatment locally, tapping CBCC's full array of services -- everything from treatments to testing.

The partnership could also benefit patients who travel to Children's Hospital Central California in Madera for cancer treatment, depending on what those providers and families desire, Moore said.

"We would be more than happy to see any child and work in any kind of partnership that works best for families," the physician said.

Moore is one of three UCLA physicians who will travel to CBCC once a month to see pediatric patients, he said. Their visits could increase to twice a month.

Moore said that ultimately he would love to have at least one physician in Bakersfield all the time.

Brenda Cortez, a 26-year-old mother of three, hopes the new program brings her family respite from exhausting trips and separations. She and her 4-year-old daughter, Aleena Gabriel, frequently travel to Children's Hospital Central California since Gabriel was diagnosed with a tumor on her right kidney, and tumors that had spread to her lungs last November.

Aleena's kidney was removed, and the little girl has been through radiation and chemotherapy. Cortez said it's been financially taxing and emotionally difficult to spend so much time in a hospital two hours away from her significant other and her 6- and 9-year-old daughters. At one point, she only saw her other daughters once in an entire month.

"Our family's just broken apart and it's just so hard. It's life-changing," she said.

She hopes CBCC and UCLA's new program makes life easier for families like hers.

"(An appointment) could be a 30-, 40-minute visit here instead of a whole day at the hospital," she said.