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Saving the lives of future generations

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Marget and her husband, Peter, have three little ones, with all the happy chaos that implies. Her life is filled with diaper bags and burp cloths, but she’s a professional too. She works as a vice president of a real estate company that serves the retail market in Chicago. She’s known for her competence, her ability to close a deal, and, it must be said, for her beauty. She has a trim figure, long brown hair and a smile that includes you in its merriment. When she talks to you, she makes you feel that, in that moment, you are the most important person in the world to her. Few people have that kind of charisma. Marget has it.

To see Marget now, you’d never know that, as a child, she suffered from cancer.

In 1976, Marget became sick within days of her first birthday. Her mother noticed that the little girl’s tummy was distended “as though she were pregnant,” so she asked Marget’s father, then a medical resident, to examine her abdomen. It concerned him enough for the family to travel straight to the hospital. Within hours, Marget was found to be suffering from an aggressive cancer called neuroblastoma.

Neuroblastoma is the most common tumor in infants younger than one year of age and a common solid tumor of childhood. Tumors originate from neural crest cells (called neuroblasts) in the sympathetic nervous system, which runs from the base of the neck to the tailbone. Accordingly, tumors can appear anywhere along this chain, but are most commonly found in the chest and near the adrenal glands, which are located on top of the kidneys.

The more Marget’s parents learned about neuroblastoma, the more frightened they became. In 1976, the survival rate for this type of cancer was abysmally low – only 10 percent.

Luckily, Marget’s father had spent part of his medical school at an affiliate clinic of St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Peoria, Illinois. He was familiar with the great strides the hospital was making in treating children with diseases once thought incurable.

Back then, St. Jude was a young and maverick hospital, founded by the entertainer Danny Thomas on his belief that no child should die in the dawn of life. St. Jude, which opened in 1962, had made a name for itself in the late sixties by helping raise the survival rate of acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL). The hospital’s treatment plan for ALL, called “total therapy,” involved bombarding the cancer with combination chemotherapy and radiation all at once rather than as consecutive treatments. This approach was enormously successful. In 1970, the hospital director, Donald Pinkel, electrified the medical community by declaring that “Leukemia can no longer be considered an incurable disease.”

For parents facing a cancer diagnosis, St. Jude had become a place of possibilities, a place of hope. Marget’s parents moved quickly to get their daughter there, and Marget became a patient in January 1976.

At St. Jude, Marget’s treatment included 12 months of chemotherapy and follow-up surgeries. When Marget was 5 years old, her cancer recurred and was removed surgically. She has been cancer free ever since.

Marget’s survival has meant a host of happy milestones, including high school and college graduations, marriage and motherhood. When Marget was 33 years old, she and Peter welcomed their first child, a baby girl named Gabrielle Rose. In January 2011, the couple gave birth to twin boys, Liam and Peter Jr.

Recently, Marget was invited to participate in the St. Jude LIFE study. The initiative brings childhood cancer survivors back to campus to study the long-term effects of their disease and its treatment. For Marget, it was an opportunity to give back, and she and her mother went to St. Jude together to see the changes undergone by the hospital—and to wonder again at all they’d been through Marget says that as a child, her visits to St. Jude for checkups were like family vacations. The doctors and nurses who had worked so hard to make her better fawned over her. What child wouldn’t have enjoyed being surrounded by so much love?

But walking through the hospital doors again, this time as a mother, made Marget see her family’s St. Jude experience through her mother’s eyes. She thought about how lonely and frightened her mother must have felt. She felt grateful, once again, that a place like St. Jude exists. As a child of St. Jude, she realized she was connected to so many other lives.

“Now a mom myself, I often wonder if Danny Thomas and his founding partners ever realized that in saving the lives of children with cancer they would also make the lives of generation after generation of healthy kids possible,” says Marget.

 

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