IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Marlo Thomas: A passion for sick kids

Cause Celeb talks with actress Marlo Thomas about her ongoing work  with St. Jude Children's Research Hospital, which strives to find cures and save children with cancer and other diseases.
Marlo Thomas with patients from St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.
Marlo Thomas with patients from St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.John Zacher / St. Jude BMC
/ Source: NBC News

Cause Celeb highlights a celebrity’s work on behalf of a specific cause. This week, we speak with Marlo Thomas, actress and activist, to follow up with her

Marlo Thomas, the national outreach director for the hospital, said last year that “no child is ever turned away if a family can’t pay,” which is why she spearheads major fundraising events throughout the year.  We speak with her about the progress the hospital has made since last year's interview.

Q: Can you tell me about some of the breakthroughs and successes of St. Jude over the past year?

Thomas: We’re leading in the genomic research — that is, to find the genes that cause tumors. The next step is to use a mutated gene to target and find new drugs to treat the tumors more effectively. This is very exciting for us because we have teams at St. Jude — every child gets a doctor and scientist. There is a team in place now to use these discoveries to find new drugs, and a team in place that uses the DNA information to personalize the treatment and supply it to our patients. It’s not possible without the kind of resources we have in our department. So, it’s a very exciting time. With the whole moving of the DNA and the genomic system, it’s a very exciting time.

Q: Can you tell me about some of the new elements of the Thanks and Giving campaign this year?

Thomas: We’re pretty much doing what we do every year, which is we reach out to Americans, say “give thanks to the healthy kids in your life, and give to those who are not,” in every way that we possibly can — through television, and magazines, and movie theaters. We’re doing a lot of new fabulous things online. Actually, I’m getting a tremendous education online because I don’t know that much about it. In fact, we’ve learned how to use Twitter and Facebook. We’re asking people to get involved in a different way.

We like the whole new social-networking component, which we’re asking people if they can have interactive ways, visually, to tailor their support to the children of St. Jude. We have something on Facebook and Twitter called, “I Give My Voice,” which encourages Facebook and Twitter users to post messages about their support of St. Jude and become online advocates for the hospital. Another thing is called “I Give My Vision,” which offers visitors access to post their own videos of them supporting the hospital or share existing St. Jude videos of other people. We have another one called, “I Give My Energy,” which is a way for visitors to become an online fundraiser for the hospital. So there’s all these new ways in which we are finding to reach new donors in the public.

Q: How are you finding that so far?

Thomas: It’s working, we’re excited about it. It’s definitely a new venue for us, and it seems to be working. We’ve also made a larger concerted effort to focus on our Hispanic outreach.

Q: I know there have been many, but is there one story that’s really inspired you this year?

Thomas: A little girl was 15 years old when she came to us, and she lived in Florida. She was told that there was no hope for her. She had leukemia, and they told her that there was no hope. She wrote a letter, and in the letter she talked about all the things she learned from being at St. Jude. One of the things she said is that, “I’ve learned that having a non-St. Jude doctor tell my mom that there’s no hope for me, that’s devastating. But walking into that doctor’s office to show him what ‘no hope’ looks like, that’s priceless.”

I thought that was just lovely. She’s interesting because she was very, very sick, and she got a bad infection, she went into a coma, and she had all kinds of things go wrong, but she has now survived it all. She figured out that it would cost about $3 million if she had to pay for what she went through, so she wants to raise that money throughout her lifetime to say thank you back. Of course, we don’t ever ask children to do that, but that’s the way she wants to help pay back.

Q: Is there anything else you would like to add?

Thomas: I think you should know that St. Jude is nonprofit. No child is ever turned away if a family can’t pay. We share our research findings with the scientific and medical communities worldwide, and that our work, even though the hospital may be in Memphis, what we do at St. Jude impacts the lives of children and communities everywhere.

We’ve had tremendous successes with leukemia, acute lymphoblastic leukemia, which is the most common form of cancer in children. With that disease alone, we went from 4 percent survival rate in 1962 to a survival rate of 94 percent. We’re very proud of our bench-to-bedside approach, where doctors and scientists and patients are all under one roof.

The scientist, doing the work in the laboratory, is handing the work from his bench to the clinician at the bedside, and that’s why we’re able to move more efficiently in the work that we do—to save children’s lives. That’s why we’re the leading pediatric cancer research and treatment center devoted solely to children in America.