The Duke Cancer Center opened its doors this week to cancer patients, medical professionals and the Duke community, offering the first glimpses of the long-awaited multidisciplinary facility.

Open houses Tuesday and Wednesday presented the building to the public. They began with opening remarks from medical leaders, tours of the facility and refreshments served in the new cafe. These events preceded the ribbon cutting ceremony Thursday afternoon. With the Cancer Center opening for medical service Feb. 27, the mood of many patients was one of appreciation for the improvements in patient services achieved by the new Center.

“It’s a night and day difference,” said Randy Askew, Cancer Center volunteer and former cancer patient. “The standard [of cancer facilities] now is good—it’s not horrible—but compared to [the new Center] it puts it 20 years behind.”

Askew, who works in the Duke University Store during the day, has spent regular nights pushing a hospitality cart of snacks and sweets through the cancer ward for the last seven years, earning him the nickname Randy the Candyman. Askew visited the Morris Cancer Clinic for a different reason last summer, however, when he was diagnosed with cancer in his tonsils and lymph nodes. He finished 30 radiation treatments in November and credits his Duke Cancer “family” with his return to health.

“Everybody is equal with cancer... cancer knows no race or creed or anything,” he said. “It treats everybody the same way—like hell. But here, you know when people treat you with compassion. You can see it in their eyes, you can see it in their touch. ‘We’re gonna make you better.’”

At the grand opening ceremony of the Duke Cancer Center Tuesday, visitors heard speeches delivered in the five-story open atrium by Dr. Victor Dzau, chancellor for health affairs and president and CEO of the Duke University Health System and Dr. Michael Kastan, executive director of the Duke Cancer Institute. Kevin Sowers, president of the Duke University Hospital, and Mary Ann Fuchs, vice president of patient care and system senior nurse executive for DUHS spoke as well.

“Our values as a health system are very important to me, and the creation of this building is consistent with our core values of caring for our patients, our loved ones and each other,” Dzau said. “I have never been more proud about [our] cancer enterprise and more optimistic about our future.”

Wednesday’s open house was aimed at showing cancer patients the new facility. Free makeovers were provided to female cancer patients and survivors in the new, expanded boutique named after the Belk retail company, which donated $1 million dollars to the center. The boutique offers a selection of wigs, scarves and hats to each patient for free. The event also featured live piano jazz, healthy refreshments and free massage stations. A team of top Duke health leaders again spoke to a crowd filling the ground floor and spilling out into multiple levels of the atrium.

Sowers noted the effort to design the Center based on patients’ wants and needs. To cultivate a welcoming and homey environment, the entranceway greets visitors with a fireplace and all the amenities are located on the ground floor. He described a recent conversation with one of the construction workers who worked on the construction of the center.

“[He told me,] ‘I want you to know I built this building for my dad. He’s going to be a patient here next Monday,’” Sowers recalled.

Breast cancer survivor Jamie Valvano Howard closed the selection of speeches Wednesday. Her father, Jim Valvano—the former N.C. State men’s basketball coach—came to Duke for treatment in his battle with terminal bone cancer in 1992. Valvano, who coached his team to victory in the 1983 NCAA Division 1 men’s basketball tournament, co-founded the V Foundation for Cancer Research before his death in 1993 at 47 years old. The Foundation has distributed $90 million in cancer research grants to date, according to its website.

Howard came to Duke for treatment at the age of 33, she said. Surgery and chemotherapy left her ready to give up, but members of the Duke Cancer team convinced her to keep going.

“They were the true visionaries, the doctors and nurses that made me believe there was life after a cancer diagnosis,” Howard said. “They refused to let me give up.... When I am walking to the parking deck [after a visit], I feel like a warrior. I feel like a survivor.”

The audience included many current cancer patients and survivors, some wearing head scarves, others sporting bright pink garments—symbolic of the fight against breast cancer. After the speeches, visitors dispersed to the cafe and ongoing tours of the facility.

Sandra Ladd attended the open house with her husband Roger and his sister Pam. They had more to celebrate Wednesday than the sunny weather and the opening ceremonies— Sandra underwent surgery for breast cancer Feb. 13 and returned to Duke Wednesday for a follow-up.

“We got very good news that it was not in my lymph nodes,” she said. “So today’s been a really good day anyway and then we just happened to be here at the same time [as the open house]. It was like it was meant to be, to hear the speeches of the Cancer Center opening. It’s just so beautiful and calming.”

After viewing the fourth floor chemotherapy rooms, Roger Ladd noted the improvement from the previous infusion facility within the Morris Cancer Clinic, in a “depressing” basement with patients packed in at close quarters and with minimal privacy. The new center, which can accommodate roughly twice as many patients than the Morris Clinic, lets in ample natural light and provides the option of taking the treatments outside on the porch under certain circumstances.

“This building here gives you hope,” he said.

Danielle Muoio contributed reporting.