Janet Knowles and Kimberly Fisher are breast cancer survivors.

The importance of effective treatment is a subject they know intimately, and it's what brought them out Tuesday with Gov. Christie and other political and community leaders to mark the formal groundbreaking for the Cooper Cancer Institute in downtown Camden.

The two attribute their survival to Cooper and hope that more patients with all types of cancer will get care with the expansion of the institute to Martin Luther King Boulevard and Haddon Avenue, where work is under way.

"It's a special day ... long overdue," said Knowles, a Moorestown resident who contributed $5 million in 2006 to fund the Janet Knowles Breast Cancer Center, headquartered at Cooper University Hospital's Voorhees facility.

"It's fantastic. Cooper literally saved my life," said Fisher, a South Philadelphia resident and violinist in the Philadelphia Orchestra who performed with other musicians at Tuesday's event. "Now more people will be helped."

The planned four-story, 103,000-square-foot building, across from Cooper University Hospital, will provide a full range of specialists and services under one roof.

"This is another $100 million investment in this city and this region," Christie said during ceremonies in a tent next to the institute site. "Every step that I've been taking as governor has been toward two goals.

"First is to put more of our men and women back to work," he said. "The second thing is to build one New Jersey ...

"This is a region of the state that has been frequently underserved, underserved by our federal government and federal resources, and underserved by our state government and state resources," the governor said. "The things that have happened in Camden have happened for many reasons.

"One of those reasons, I believe, is that we have not paid enough attention [to] how you build a great city and how you grow a great region," he said.

A partnership between Cooper and the New Brunswick-based Cancer Institute of New Jersey was fostered by Gov. Jim McGreevey in 2003 when the state provided $5 million.

The relationship gave patients access to clinical trials and innovative therapies that often provide the best cancer-fighting options, and allowed Cooper to benefit from tens of millions of dollars in grant money for research and treatment.

"In the legislature, what you do can be undone" by subsequent administrations, Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester) said Tuesday. "Gov. McGreevey made a commitment and I want to thank Gov. Christie for keeping it. In these difficult economic times, it easy to walk away and say we can't afford it."

The state has directed $59 million in grant money toward the $100 million project. An additional $24 million has been provided through a capital campaign, $10 million came from the Cooper Foundation, $6 million came from the Delaware River Port Authority, and $1 million came from the New Jersey Economic Development Agency. The project will create 250 construction jobs and at least 25 permanent jobs.

"Today marks yet another milestone in the expansion of the Health Sciences Campus in Camden," said George E. Norcross III, chairman of Cooper's board of trustees and a partner in the firm that owns The Inquirer. "Our commitment to Camden and our community continues to be our priority as we work to bring positive changes and improved health care services to our patients."

Norcross praised Christie for his "will to make things happen," and Camden Mayor Dana L. Redd for giving "her entire life to this community."

Redd, in turn, pledged to continue working for her city. "If we are ever to stand Camden up, we must stand the people up," she said. "I believe it's Camden's time."

The institute will go on the former site of an armory, which also served as a convention hall. The building, erected more than 100 years ago, was leveled in the 1980s. Its brick, stone, and timbers were found during excavation for the center.

On Tuesday, the site was muddy after a heavy rain so the ceremonial groundbreaking shovels became props for state and local leaders posing for a photo inside the tent.

"It might be cloudy and raining, but the sun is shining on South Jersey this morning," said John Sheridan, president and CEO of the Cooper Health System.

The institute's new building will provide space for a variety of oncology practices and therapies. Cooper Cancer Institute is accredited by the American College of Surgeons' Commission on Cancer as an academic comprehensive cancer program, recognition reserved for the top 5 percent of cancer programs in the country.

The institute currently treats more than 2,000 new patients a year and is the site of 55,000 outpatients visits annually.

The institute's construction in Camden "represents hope, not simply for those anxious hearts who will come to this place, hoping for [a] miracle," but for "the plumbers, electricians and bricklayers who don't have work today but will have it tomorrow because of this project, [and] for the hundreds that work here in the healing professions," said U.S. Rep. Robert E. Andrews.

Contact Edward Colimore at 856-779-3833 or ecolimore@phillynews.com.