Forty years ago, most children diagnosed with cancer died. Now, 75% of them survive, and much of that is due to one Philadelphia doctor.
For decades, children with cancer and their families have come from around the country to Philadelphia to see Doctor Audrey Evans. She was a champion for kids with cancer at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia for 40 years. But on a Sunday this winter, Evans packed up her office and quietly retired. WHYY’s health and science reporter Kerry Grens filed this report of Evans’ career.
Audrey Evans lives in an apartment overlooking Rittenhouse Square in downtown Philadelphia. I met her at home on a mid-week morning, someplace she usually would not be.
Evans: I loved going to work. I would rather go to work than anything. I’ve gone to work for everyday for 60 years and that’s my life and that’s what I like to do.
Evans’ work was neuroblastoma — the most common form of childhood cancer. She wanted to specialize in this disease because of its peculiar behavior in some patients.
Evans: It’s one of the very few if not the only one where there is a small number of babies or young children born with neuroblastoma where you can predict that the neuroblastoma will regress spontaneously. That it will go away by itself. And that’s I think what intrigued me most.
Evans didn’t just want to care for children with the disease, she wanted to figure out how it worked, and capitalize on why some cancers can heal themselves. She was integral to starting the oncology department at Children’s Hospital and the research program there. She developed a system to determine how each child’s cancer will progress, helping many kids avoid chemotherapy.
Maris: In many respects, the sort of meteoric advancements in the 60s and 70s were in large part due to her and the work she organized and got done.
That’s John Maris, the current oncology chair at Children’s Hospital.
Maris: When Dr Evans started in the field the vast majority of children with cancer died. And now 75 % of these children will survive.
But as Evans was making these clinical advances, and patients were coming from all over to seek her care, she noticed a problem.
Evans: The parents of the children with cancer had no where to go.
With the help of some Philadelphia Eagles and a certain fast-food chain, Evans launched the first Ronald McDonald House in Philadelphia in the 1970s. Now there are hundreds. At 84, Evans is ready to retire. She came to the US in her twenties from England with a sole purpose.
Evans: I knew I was going to be a doctor since I was five. I just knew that’s what I was going to do. I don’t think I ever thought of anything else.
Her departure comes at a bittersweet time in neuroblastoma research. Evans says a chemical she hoped could be developed into a drug to fight the cancer failed in animal experiments. But just several months ago her colleagues finally discovered the gene for neuroblastoma. Evans says she won’t stop working. She’s leading her church in opening a school in North Philadelphia.