By Marci Narum | Photography: Photos by Jacy

There is something different about the Bismarck Cancer Center. The interior of the building has changed dramatically with the completion of a remodeling and expansion project. But most of all, it’s different because of what is unchanging.

“People come in and say there’s something different about this place,” shares executive director, Amy Gross. “They can’t pinpoint it. But they feel it.”

Amy says what people are feeling is a result of the cancer center’s workplace culture, something she’s been part of since joining the team 20 years ago and continues to foster now as director.

“We have extremely high expectations of everyone in the building. They have it of us, too. We also know we are all human, so we all fail. But when you fail and you’re surrounded by people that are forgiving and respect you, and understand that you’re just human, then we just start over again the next day.”

Amy has experienced many fresh starts with the Bismarck Cancer Center (BCC). Her first job was radiation therapist in 1997. She became the center’s lead radiation therapist, was promoted to radiation therapy manager, and then named assistant director in 2014. She was hired as executive director in August 2016, following the death of longtime director, Ken Dykes.

While it’s a position she never imagined having, Amy embraced her first major task as executive director: overseeing the building’s year-long expansion and remodeling project. She says it was rewarding to see it come together, having been with BCC since the beginning.

Thriving & Striving
“I came with the building,” Amy smiles. “I was a year out of my schooling when I started in the basement of MedCenter One, which was the only place in town that had radiation oncology. So when patients from St. Alexius needed radiation, they would come over to us or get sent somewhere else for radiation.

“Both hospitals had the MRI Center as a joint venture and it was working really well for them, so they started talking about building the cancer center together. It was the best thing they could do for this community; it is well-served with one very high-functioning, state-of-the-art center where we can support the patients that are coming to us.”

The list of support services for patients at BCC keeps growing. Patients are offered massage therapy, physical therapy, dietary help, social work, and survivorship counseling. It means the team of professionals providing the services keeps growing, too.

“When we built the building in 1999 we had 16 employees. We now have 47 and we hadn’t changed the square footage.”

Amy recalls closets, stairwells, and an elevator shaft being converted into office space. She says every decision is made with the patients in mind first.

“We are always looking for something different, always striving for something bigger and better, and doing more to help our patients. We never say, ‘this is good enough.’ We never say, ‘we’re doing okay, we don’t need to do anymore.’”

At the Front in Fundraising
Too humble to admit it, Amy might also never say that she was instrumental in starting the BCC Foundation, which makes the support services possible.

“I remember the days where we were really proud of the radiation therapy we delivered. It was always high tech, state-of-the-art. Always has been. But there are so many things it felt like we couldn’t do for the patient. If somebody had a need, who do we go to? Who can help manage through some of those difficulties? It was very hard.

“When Ken came, he had this vision that we’re going to break down those walls; take away any barrier they have and we’re going to do everything we can. I remember when he told me, ‘you need to go out and raise money for this foundation.’”

Amy says she knew nothing about fundraising or setting up foundations. But her first visit was to Wells Fargo to start the conversation. And their answer was yes.

“Over the 10 years of the foundation we’ve learned so much and developed so many wonderful relationships with people in the community that are giving so much of themselves.”

Each year, more than 30 fundraisers are held to benefit the BCC Foundation. Only five of them are planned and executed by the cancer center staff.

“It’s amazing to see what people will do and how generous they’ll be, and a lot of times for someone they don’t even know. They step up and give their time to organize huge events for us. It’s so rewarding to be part of that community too and knowing what they’re doing for us is going to help so many people.

“The money that we raise goes right back to the patients and it helps in a lot of those burdens they carry on this journey. We get to experience seeing the patient’s face after that first massage that helps take away that anxiety and some stress. We just started a yoga program and it was amazing to see the relief people got from just an hour of yoga, and what we can do to help relieve some of those aches they have.”

Amy says there are many painful, hard days at BCC; she has been asked countless times how it’s possible to be in her profession. Amy gets teary-eyed as she shares how her career in oncology has been deeply fulfilling.

“You get to say you’re part of curing someone’s cancer. That is so fulfilling from a personal standpoint. For those you’re not able to cure, you’re giving them a better quality of life. You’re taking away pain and making them more comfortable so they aren’t hurting or not having side effects from the disease.”

Amy puts patients ahead of everything else and she leads her team the same way.

Modeling Leadership
“She’s been a mentor to me,” says Melissa Klein, who was promoted to radiation therapy manager when Amy became executive director. “I was lead therapist and then transitioned into this role which has really pushed me, and I’ve had her guidance through a lot of things.

“I always think, what would Amy do? So I’m always double-checking everything. I want things to be at her standard. We are taking care of people. They’re trusting us with their lives so having high expectations is just fine.”

Melissa says Amy exemplifies servant leadership.

“There is nothing that I would ever ask anyone to do that I won’t do myself,” says Amy.

Amy was part of the leadership team when BCC developed its core values 10 years ago. They include unity, respect, compassion, and integrity.

“One thing that Ken taught me—he was so wise about integrity. He said to me very early on, ‘if you don’t have your integrity, you don’t have anything.’”

She says the workplace culture at BCC is a result of hiring people who share those values and are willing to be part of the very intentional and consistent workplace experience called Walk the Talk. Amy says it’s all about relationships.

“It’s simple, it’s very concise. Walk the Talk is built on five pillars and ultimately it’s about the golden rule; just doing the right thing for everyone around you and expecting the same back from them.”

“The culture here at BCC is really unique,” explains Sara Kelsch, marketing director. “It’s a very patient-centered approach but more than that, I think everybody works well as a team, looks out for each other, and is very focused on what’s best for the patients. We hold each other up to high standards here.”

“It doesn’t mean we succeed in everything,” says Amy. “But when it comes to tough decisions, I’ll look at the team and ask, ‘what’s best for the patients? Let’s decide on that. Will it be best for us—or for someone else?’ It might create more work but if it’s what’s best for the patients that’s what we need to do.”

Sharing Success & Giving Credit
Becoming executive director meant a new, larger office for Amy. But she is the first to say that her leadership role has nothing to do with where she sits or even her job title.

“I’m only one person. I can make a difference and maybe do something to help, but it’s everybody else; people who are supportive and are willing to do things beyond their job description, willing to take ownership to whatever it is. They’re just the most amazing people and when we can work together we can accomplish so much more.

“When you can keep the focus on the patients, which is what every single one of them does, we’re going to be successful. And when you have a team like this one, you feel like you’re unstoppable.”   

To see more photos of Amy by Photos by Jacy, click here.