A St. Jude survivor, who is now 46, looks back on his time at St. Jude, and why he returns to the hospital every few years.
When St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital opened in 1962, the survival rate for acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL), the most common form of childhood cancer, was just 4 percent. These were odds so dismal, a diagnosis of ALL was nearly a death sentence.
For a 6-year-old boy named Scott, diagnosed with ALL at the newly-opened St. Jude affiliate clinic in Peoria, Illinois in 1975, there was still little hope. What scrap of hope existed was to be found at St. Jude.
Scott was raced to Memphis, and there, what seemed to be a miracle occurred. The experimental treatment plan Scott was placed on began to work. “I was so far gone, and children that far gone didn’t live,” recalled Scott. “You didn’t come back from that. I came back — I went into remission.”
Scott continued to experience close calls during his long and painful treatment, but he was strengthened by friends within the close-knit hospital: Ollie the only shuttle driver and Willis the security guard, who always had bubblegum to share. At what was then a much smaller hospital than today, Scott even met St. Jude founder Danny Thomas. “He played a part in everything about the hospital. It’s funny to see that, even though it’s gotten so much bigger, it’s retained a lot of that closeness,” said Scott. “There was so much pain and so much despair and so much joy going on all at the same time. It was just amazing.”
His best friend at the hospital was a little boy his own age who had Wilms tumor. “We’d be playing,” recalled Scott, “and we’re both so white we’re green, no hair, so weak and so tired, but we’d always play — play Army men and the things that kids do.”
Scott is now 46 years old and travels to St. Jude every few years to participate in the St. Jude LIFE Study, an unprecedented research program that brings long-term childhood cancer survivors back to St. Jude for regular health screenings. The LIFE Study helps former patients monitor their health and yields information about the late effects of cancer therapy for researchers.
Since Scott’s treatment, St. Jude has continued to improve the survival rates for ALL, which now stand at 94 percent today.
“People say, thanks for coming back,” said Scott. “Don’t thank me. Thank Danny Thomas. Thank the doctors. The people that donated to St. Jude in the 1960s and 1970s, thank them. Because then, St. Jude was nothing compared to what it is now. Those people deserve thanks. To believe in that vision was amazing.”
Childhood cancer can leave scars both physical and emotional, the strain of unanswerable questions like why some children die and others survive. It can also give gifts. Scott said, “A day doesn’t pass me, feeling good or bad or whatever, that I don’t think, ‘I’m still here.’ It’s a miracle that I’m still here.”
Scott’s best friend, the little boy with Wilms tumor, did not survive. The cancer overtook him. Four decades later, this fact still has the power to move Scott to tears. “If you want to know why I come back to participate in the LIFE Study,” he says, “that’s why.”