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Marlo Thomas, Katharine McPhee team up for sick kids

Image: Marlo Thomas with children
Marlo Thomas with the children that inspire herCourtesy of St. Jude's
/ Source: NBC News

Cause Celeb highlights a celebrity’s work on behalf of a specific cause. This week, we speak with Marlo Thomas and Katharine McPhee about their support for St. Jude Children’s Hospital, a leading pediatric research and treatment facility focused on children's catastrophic diseases.

Actress Marlo Thomas has been working with St Jude’s for more than 20 years. She took over for her father, who founded St Jude’s in 1962. She is the national outreach director. She is also a New York Times bestselling author and she won a for her public service.

Singer and actress McPhee was runner-up on the fifth season of "American Idol." She released her first album in 2007, which included her single "Over it" that was a Pop Top 30 hit and certified gold. She has released two more albums since then. Katherine has also been seen on the screen with small roles in TV and film; she will be starring in the NBC show "Smash."

Interviews by Meg Zrini

Thomas: I think mostly what we’re very excited about right now is doing a $65 million pediatric cancer genome project. We’re the leading pediatric research and treatment center devoted solely to children with cancer and other catastrophic diseases and we have been doing amazing work. We’ve raised the level of cure rates from 4 percent in 1962 with ALL (Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia), the most common form of cancer, to 94 percent just a couple years ago, solely to do with our research.

What’s really going to make the difference for us now, is finding out what causes this cancer. By sequencing entire genomes in both normal and cancer cells from each patient and comparing the differences in the DNA to identify the genetic mistake that leads to the cancer, we can create drugs that will pinpoint and get that cancer. If you can compare the two, a white blood cell that could become leukemia or a brain cell that could become a brain tumor, we compare them and see what the change was. Once you identify that gene that causes the cancer then this becomes the foundation to develop new tests and screen new drugs that precisely target that abnormality.

What’s important about the genome project is if we can understand the genetic origin of cancer, we are going to be able to target the bad gene. It’s as simple as that. There is a study that showed that adolescents (age) 15-18 had only a 59 percent survival rate where children are now up to 94 percent. That’s pretty interesting. We took an approach of replacing the radiation of the brain with chemotherapy and now we helped push the survival rate to 88 percent from 59 percent with adolescents.

The other thing we have done at St. Jude is the bone marrow transplant unit. There was a time when people would be begging for perfect matches; that is no longer true. We pioneered the transplanting of patients so they don’t have to have a perfect match. Their parents with only half a match can be their donor. They take their marrow and the part that does not match the child is removed from the marrow. I don’t know the process exactly. It’s a perfect half match, in other words. It’s called haplo-identical bone marrow transplant. That’s a very big gain for not having to have a perfect match in order to save a child’s life.

Q: How do you keep your father’s inspiration with you after taking over for him 20 years ago?

Thomas: It’s the kids and their parents. Every time I get tired and I think I can’t make another trip or I can’t go another day, I go down to St. Jude and it’s completely inspiring. I meet families that come there the very first day and I meet them at the hospital from New York or LA or Boston or wherever, being told that their child has two months left to live. I meet fathers who tell me they have already picked the funeral music for their daughter. They come to St. Jude and they are terrified with a kid who’s so sick they can’t even stand up. I come back six months later and that child is running around the halls. You get to see these kids go home and see their hair grow back on their heads.

One of the great things also at St. Jude’s is this program called the After Completion of Therapy, it’s a very big program, it’s the biggest in the country for this and it’s for our long-term survivors. We learn a lot from them. We’ve got people who have been alive 20, 30 or 40 years since they had their cancer when they were children. We can completely assess their health status and identify any side effects of the prior therapy and there are a lot of side effects for those early years. We’ve gotten better and smarter as the children survived and as we found the drugs to keep them alive we have begun to hone them so they have less side effects. We develop all kinds of interventions to enhance the quality of life so what we have learned from the survivors has helped us become a leader in developing new treatments that minimize side effects for all children that are now being treated for cancer.

As much as that’s a great program, it also gives me a chance to meet people who are now in their 60s who were cured at St. Jude. I’ve met a patient who calls himself patient number 17. He was patient number 17 and everybody before him and shortly after him did not survive. That’s what keeps me going. It inspires me. Once I’m at St. Jude I can’t wait to get started working at St. Jude again. We really are saving children’s lives and these parents had no other place to turn. St. Jude really is a beacon in the night of terror for these parents. Some of them come literally in the middle of the night and St. Jude is always open and we are there waiting for them and ready to take them immediately. Without asking them if they have insurance and without asking them for any money. Immediately taking care of that child and that’s our mission. That was my fathers’ promise.

It’s very important to us that no child is ever turned away if a family can’t pay. That’s why I’m embarking on my eighth . We’ve raised $244 million so far in seven years with this program which is three weeks a year. It’s very important because it costs $1.7 million to run St. Jude a day. Seventy-five percent of that funding comes from the public so the Thanks and Giving Program becomes very important. It’s a national program and it’s very important to us.

We couldn’t do it without our great partners either. Without the stars and the partners of the stores, we wouldn’t be able to do it. It’s a unique coming together of celebrities and retail stores and the media. When you look into a face of a child and see that that child is alive because of the research being done at St. Jude, you really want to contribute to it. Every child gets a doctor and a scientist when they come to St. Jude so they have ever possible chance of becoming well and because money is no object, they get everything that they need.

Our doctors are from 88 different countries; we have treated children from all over the world. We always have an interpreter for them because we want the parents to understand what’s being doing and what’s exactly wrong with their child.

Q: You received a lifetime achievement award for your work with St Jude’s. How does it feel to be recognized for your charity work?

Thomas: It’s very nice but it’s really not necessary. I respect it and I appreciate it but that’s not what keeps me going. I’m grateful for the recognition and I’m grateful for the light that it shines on St Jude. What I need to continue my work is just to visit St. Jude enough and to see the families and the children.

This is a thanks and giving time. You should give thanks for the kids in your life that are healthy and give to those who are not healthy. It’s a great time of year, everybody’s excited about having turkey and having the family altogether but there are a lot of families that aren’t even thinking about that. They are just trying to get their kids to stay alive through the holidays and make the New Year. That is what’s really on my mind. The Thanks and Giving is a fundraising campaign but it is also an awareness campaign. We can let parents and grandparents know that there is a place to go when somebody else tells you to go get funeral music.

You can go online and donate at or call 1-800-4STJUDE.

Q: How did you first get involved with St. Jude’s?

McPhee: Last year, I visited the St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital a couple times and they got to take me around. I got to go to some of the laboratories where they were doing the work and research for the kids. Target came to me and I hosted their carnival. I sang a little song for the kids and helped them decorate for the carnival. Last year, I also did a holiday video, a song called "Life Time," featuring some kids from the hospital. We had a big pizza party during the holidays. So it was last year when I got involved.

Q: What do you enjoy most about your work with St. Jude’s?

McPhee: What I enjoy the most is hearing the stories of the kids and the families that I meet and the legacy of St. Jude’s and what they give to the families. None of them pay for travel, food or lodging. It’s no-questions-asked for these families whether they have a lot of money or no money. St Jude’s comes in and takes care of these children. It’s the best hospital to send your child if they have cancer. If you are in a horrible situation like that, where your child is diagnosed with something, you can go to St. Jude’s and have everything taken care of for you and I think it is a very special place.

Q: Are there any experiences that are particularly moving?

McPhee: The video that I did with the kids last year during Christmas time was very special. There was one kid who was in the video. This little girl who looked like she was going to be OK and I found out that her illness was pretty terminal. Being there with her parents and watching these parents look at their little girl and not taking any moment for granted. Being able to see that.  It’s sad but it is also how we all should live.

Q: What are your short term goals with the charity?

McPhee: I hope that I can bring awareness to St Jude’s. What their vision is and what it is that they do. I’ve known about St. Jude and I think most people know about St Jude’s because of the wonderful commercials they do but I didn’t realize it was such an amazing organization. In a very small way, I try to raise awareness within my own fan base. Last year, I raised some money for it. It’s something I’ve been doing to help campaign for it.

Q: Do you have any long-term goals with the charity?

McPhee: When I was in Memphis, I visited Ryan Seacrest and he has an amazing studio where the kids can go in and play. They can even do radio interviews from that spot. I’d love to extend that eventually into some sort of adding on, raise money and build a stage where artists can come and perform there with a real sound system and real lighting system. Artists that these children really know so the Justin Biebers of the world could come and do little mini concerts there so these kids can really be taken out of there environment. Just for a moment, for an hour or two, taken out of where they actually are.

That’s ultimately what I would like to do but that’s going to take some time and that’s going to take a separate fundraiser but that is what I would really like to do. I started doing charitable thing about six years ago and I love anything to do with children. I’m happy to do doing stuff with them.