A $750M, state-of-the-art cancer center — and so much more

Jack & Sheryl Morris Cancer Center will be about fighting cancer, as well as aiding the entire community

For Jack Morris and his wife, Sheryl Morris, making the investment that will help RWJBarnabas Health and the Rutgers Cancer Institute of New Jersey build a world-class, free-standing cancer facility in the heart of New Brunswick was an easy decision to make.

“There is nothing that feels better or more gratifying than helping others in need,” Morris said. “Cancer touches the lives of everyone — and we believe that people should not have to travel to New York or Pennsylvania to get great cancer care.

“It has been our vision, our hope and our dream to have the top cancer center in the nation right here in New Brunswick. Sheryl and I are so proud that we can play a role in helping to make this dream a reality.”

The Jack & Sheryl Morris Cancer Center, a 12-story, 510,000-square-foot facility that represents a major expansion of the Rutgers Cancer Institute, had its ceremonial groundbreaking Thursday.

The $750 million facility, which is being developed in partnership with the New Brunswick Development Corp., is expected to be completed in 2024.

When it opens, it will have far-reaching impact, the numerous dignitaries at the event said.

For starters, it will allow cancer patients to get world-class treatment in one place.

So said Dr. Steven Libutti, the director of the Rutgers Cancer Institute and a senior vice president of oncology services at RWJBarnabas Health. He couldn’t speak enough of the possibilities.

“This new structure we’re breaking ground on today reinforces our commitment to providing comprehensive oncology care,” he said. “It will enable cancer patients at all stages of their journey to have their needs seamlessly met, all in one location. No need to get back in the car and drive across town or across the state to someplace else to get the next piece of care.”

This will include surgery and aftercare — the facility will have 96 beds. And Libutti said a team of doctors will work together to ensure seamless handoff when care progresses from inpatient to outpatient.

More than that, Jack & Sheryl Morris Cancer Center aims to be a leader in research, Libutti said.

“New research laboratories will drive cancer discovery,” he said. “They will be a part of this landmark facility — in addition to wellness and other amenities that will further address the needs of our cancer survivors.”

The impact will go beyond patients, too.

New Brunswick Mayor Jim Cahill said the building will further build the city’s long-desired goal of being an internationally recognized city for health care.

It also will help New Brunswick’s youngest residents.

As part of the project, RWJBarnabas Health is picking up the entirety of the $55 million cost to build the Blanquita B. Valenti Community School, a state-of-the-art elementary school, which broke ground last week.

And Middlesex County Freeholder Director Ron Rios discussed the county’s previously announced $25 million contribution that will help fund educational and job training opportunities at Middlesex College and the county vocational and technical schools — all of which will drive economic expansion in the county.

“This funding will create enhanced instructive platforms with the facility, including state-of-the-art laboratory spaces, innovative image technology and equipment, as well as robust programming that will enable us to transform our educational landscape,” he said.

“From internships and hands-on training opportunities to an invaluable employment stream, Middlesex County students will have access to this one-of-kind oncology center, giving them the best possible education and preparation.”

The totality of the announcements was most pleasing to Barry Ostrowsky, the CEO of RWJBarnabas Health. The facility represents the vision and the mission of the health care system.

“At RWJBarnabas Health, we have a very simple mission: To improve the lives of the people who live in the communities we serve,” he said.

Ostrowsky said RWJBH does that in two ways.

“One, you build world-class clinical programs that are developed and accessible to everyone,” he said. “We make sure that they’re equitably available, and ensure that the outcomes are not disparate, but rather affect everyone’s lives in a clinical fashion.”

The second is not as precise. RWJBarnabas Health, like so many others, recognizes that most people are unhealthy because of social determinants in their community. There is a need to address that, too, Ostrowsky said.

“Simply having great clinical care is not enough for us to pursue our mission,” he said. “So, we’ve developed those social programs that deal with food insecurity, and substandard housing, and chronic unemployment. And today’s project is the embodiment of that entire mission.

“Yes, we’re building a fabulous facility with world-class clinical and research capacities. But, we’ve also built the school. Yes, we’re building these institutions, but we’re training people from the community to have everlasting skills and jobs so that they may provide for themselves. And, yes, we were understanding the need of cancer care, but we understand how perhaps to prevent the onset of cancer.

“If we ignore that, we’ll never build enough cancer institutes to treat those who are afflicted.”

Morris, who has served as the chair of RWJBarnabas Health since it was created by the 2015 merger of the Robert Wood Johnson Health System and the Saint Barnabas Health Care System, said he and the system are eager for the challenges that are still out there.

“I wish I could say, ‘I’m going to build this, this is going to be my legacy,’ it’s not,” he said. “When I walk out of meeting talking about cancer, I’m on to another meeting talking about children’s care, cardiac care — or meetings talking about what we’re going to do for social responsibilities, how we’re going to take care of our homeless population and our patients who have behavioral health problems. So, my list continues.”

Today, was about cancer, Morris said.

“This building was near and dear to my heart because we’ve all lost some many people to cancer,” he said. “For me personally, it’s my grandmother, my mother-in-law. This opportunity was one I was happy to take.”