The very thought of specializing in childhood cancer treatment seems like a heartbreaking endeavor. But when Dr. Melissa Hudson points out that cure rates are now approaching 80 percent, the field takes on a hue of optimism, and distinct progress.
"My specialty is lymphoma, specifically of the Hodgkin's type. But another focus of mine is caring for long-term survivors," explains Hudson, director of the After Completion of Therapy Clinic at St. Jude Children's Research Hospital. "We're focused on wellness, maintaining health, risk awareness. We follow everyone here until they're 10 years from their cancer diagnosis. It's not as depressing as you might think."
Born in Bryan, Texas, and living in Alabama, Louisiana, and Arkansas as a youth, Hudson attended the University of Texas Medical School in Houston and completed a fellowship at the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center before joining St. Jude in 1989. With her husband practicing medical oncology, Hudson needed a home where two doctors could thrive, all the while raising a pair of daughters. And she found it in Memphis.
"When people are here [at St. Jude]," says Hudson, "it's magic compared with anywhere else. We have resources that the children need and this level of care continues right into their adulthood." Hudson stresses the importance of caring for patients after they've left St. Jude, when simply staying insured can be difficult, there being no national health-care system in the United States.
Ask Hudson about the biggest challenge in her field today and she describes the cytotoxic (cell-killing) medicines being used. While they help in the fight against cancer, they can cause damage to otherwise healthy tissue and organs. "It's not a perfect treatment," she says. "We're trying to limit those exposures. But some children with really high-risk tumors may become sterile or at risk for heart trouble when they get older." Hudson describes new agents that work on the cellular level as central to the ongoing research at St. Jude.
The sad truth is that cancer comes in many deadly forms, but this only further motivates the professionals who have devoted their lives to winning the ongoing battle. And surprisingly, it's not the kids who are the face of victory, but the grown-ups.
"When I first started working here," reflects Hudson, "I would get these calls from survivors and they'd come here for survivor's day. I'd have this whole population of people my age or older, and it became like a family reunion." A reunion with tears of joy, not heartbreak.