First lady Jill Biden visited Memphis on Friday, meeting with researchers and patients at one of the country's preeminent pediatric cancer treatment and research centers, St. Jude Children's Research Hospital, to promote the White House's Cancer Moonshot initiative.
President Joe Biden last month re-prioritized the initiative which aims to cut the number of cancer deaths in half over the next 25 years. The program focuses on improving cancer treatment and prevention.
"To see how special this place really is firsthand, you know, it's simply breathtaking,"
the first lady told St. Jude employees. "Your research is saving lives."
Jill Biden said the advances made by researchers at St. Jude were in line with the administration's goals to curb cancer deaths and give hope to families.
"One of the hardest parts of the cancer diagnosis is that paralyzing sense of helplessness. But here at St. Jude, you know, hearing about so many cutting-edge approaches to this disease, we are reminded that we are, in fact, living in a time of incredible possibility," she said. "We can end cancer as we know it. And that's what the Cancer Moonshot is all about."
She also spent several private moments with Ukrainian cancer patients and their families who had been forced to leave their homes and were brought to Memphis by St. Jude to receive treatment. Biden said she was proud of St. Jude's commitment to help pediatric cancer patients impacted by the war.
"I wanted to join you in welcoming them. We stand with Ukraine, and we're praying for their families," she said.
'An absolute honor'
Biden arrived at the Tennessee Air National Guard 164th Airlift Wing in Memphis, walking off the plane after it landed at about 1:45 p.m. Friday.
Biden’s arrival was greeted with sunshine and a somewhat chilly breeze with the temperature in the mid-50s.
Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris, Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland and Congressman Steve Cohen shook the first lady's hand as they welcomed her to Memphis. All three joined her on her tour of St. Jude.
St. Jude officials said they were very excited to welcome the first lady. The hospital has hosted multiple first ladies including Michelle Obama, Hillary Clinton and Barbara Bush. The trip was Biden's first to St. Jude and her first visit to Memphis since March 2020.
The visit focused on the experiences of cancer patients as well as their families and caregivers and innovative research initiatives. Biden received an overview from St. Jude administrators and physicians about the hospital's ongoing research, family and caregiver assistance programs and toured a laboratory.
Biden also met with former St. Jude patient Katherin Aristondo to talk about the care she received at St. Jude.
“It’s hard to explain the peace that I felt,” Aristondo said. “St. Jude was the place that was going to take care of me and my family.”
Biden met with Dr. Charles Roberts, director of St. Jude’s comprehensive cancer center, and Dr. Giedre Krenciute, a doctor who conducts Car-T Cell therapy research, in a pediatric brain tumor lab filled with high-tech equipment including electronic pipettes and centrifuges.
Roberts told Biden about the hospital’s novel therapies, improved cancer cure rates and the St. Jude cloud, which stores information accessible for free for doctors and researchers around the world.
“It’s amazing,” Biden said.
Krenciute explained to Biden her research looking to reengineer t-cells to recognize cancer cells in pediatric brain tumors.
“It’s an absolute honor,” she said of the first lady’s visit. “I’m glad she picked here.”
A global effort to cure cancer
The first lady met with two of the four Ukrainian pediatric cancer patients and their families who arrived at St. Jude this week from Poland. St. Jude facilitated their evacuation from Ukraine amid the Russian-initiated war.
"These days, I think we're all just sitting in front of the TV praying constantly. You know, it's the people in Ukraine, people in Poland," as well as people in New Orleans impacted by the recent tornado, Biden said.
The hospital's global initiative has helped hundreds of children with cancer find treatment elsewhere. St. Jude was the first U.S. hospital to receive Ukrainian pediatric cancer patients.
"You offer healing and health, care and community, a place of refuge for those facing the worst," Biden said. "My heart has ached watching the videos of Ukraine."
Marlo Thomas, daughter of St. Jude founder Danny Thomas, joined the first lady on the tour. She said she often reflects on the words at the entrance to the hospital: "No child should die in the dawn of life."
"And he didn't mean no American child. He meant no child," she said. "Today we celebrate once again our conviction that we are all part of a global family."
'It's bold, it's ambitious'
In 2018, the most recent data available, 1,708,921 new cancer cases were reported and 599,265 people died of cancer, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The president said he planned to “supercharge” Cancer Moonshot, a project he spearheaded during his final year as vice president during the Obama presidency.
“We can do this. We can end cancer as we know it," the president said in February. "It's bold, it's ambitious, but it's completely doable."
The renewed emphasis on Cancer Moonshot includes advocating for more at-home screenings for colon cancer and the HPV virus that causes multiple types of cancers. The administration also plans to increase mobile screenings in communities with poor access to healthcare.
St. Jude earlier this month launched its "Path to a Bright Future" campaign. The push aims to bring more attention to the need for and benefits of adolescents ages 9-12 receiving on-time HPV vaccines.
St. Jude President and CEO James R. Downing said the hospital wanted to “create a future free of HPV.”
“St. Jude has been actively engaged over the past several years in raising awareness about HPV. With this latest campaign, we are working to increase vaccinations and ultimately reduce the rate of HPV infections," he said. "By educating the public on the dangers of HPV and associated cancers, focusing on both the community and clinical settings, and supporting relevant policies that encourage vaccination, these efforts will help prevent future cancers,” he said.
USA TODAY and AP reporter Adrian Sainz contributed to this report.
Corinne S Kennedy covers healthcare and economic development for The Commercial Appeal. She can be reached via email at Corinne.Kennedy@CommercialAppeal.com
This article originally appeared on Memphis Commercial Appeal: Jill Biden visits Memphis, St. Jude to promote 'Cancer Moonshot'