Spotlight On: Dr. Anna Meadows

Anna Meadows

Dr. Anna Meadows
Emeritus Professor CE of Pediatrics
Perelman School of Medicine
University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphhia, PA

When cancer strikes any child, the first goal is a cure.

And yet treatments used to fight pediatric cancers – powerful chemotherapies and radiation – can sometimes come with side effects, including an increased risk for secondary cancers years later.

Back in the early 1970s, when Dr. Anna Meadows first entered the field of pediatric oncology, only 2 out of every 10 children with cancer survived. Now, with better, more targeted treatments, that number has risen to 8 out of 10.

And – thanks in part to the pioneering work of Dr. Meadows – more survivors of childhood cancer are avoiding treatment-linked secondary cancers than ever before.

In January, Meadows spoke with Cancer Connections, a publication of the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP), where she worked and conducted research for 40 years.

She explained that because pediatric cancers develop differently than cancers in adults, the children she cared for often responded well to chemotherapy and radiation, “affecting extraordinary changes. But those therapies also had consequences, as survivors went through the normal aging process.”

As survivorship began to rise throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Meadows began to shift her focus of research towards minimizing the long-term effects of childhood cancer treatment.

For example, in 1981 she published a landmark study showing that leukemia patients who received radiation therapy to the head often developed cognitive deficits – even secondary brain cancers – in later years.

At the same time, new research was suggesting that in many cases, chemotherapy alone – without this potentially hazardous radiation – might be enough to beat back childhood leukemia.

Insights like these helped Meadows gain membership on key committees representing national oncology groups, including the Children’s Oncology Group. From these positions of influence, she successfully lobbied for the reduction or elimination of radiation in the treatment of childhood lymphomas or eye cancers called retinoblastomas.

She said her team’s work on retinoblastomas, “taught us a critical lesson: You didn’t have to give a lot of a drug to save lives, and the eyes of children.”

With that in mind, the goal was to “modify [cancer] therapies, to target therapies so the awful, late side effects would no longer affect large numbers of those cured,” Meadows explained. And even though she retired from CHOP in 2011, she says this important work goes on.

“We must continue to improve cure rates, but reduce the radiation and lower doses of drugs that have potential long-term toxicity,” Meadows said.

Her career didn’t begin in a conventional way. Meadows’ initial undergraduate training was in clinical psychology, but in 1962 – aged 31 and already the mother of three young children – she decided to apply to Harvard Medical School.

The deans’ response? “Stay home with the kids.”

Luckily for the world of medicine, the Medical College of Pennsylvania was more welcoming. Armed with her doctorate, Meadows was recruited by CHOP in 1972 and remained there for an illustrious 40-year career, heading the hospital’s Cancer Survivorship Program and serving as director of the Division of Oncology & Children’s Cancer Research Center.

And when the U.S. National Cancer Institute established its own Office of Cancer Survivorship, Meadows was appointed its first director, serving from 1996 to 1999. Beginning in 1993, she was also a prime investigator in the NCI-sponsored Childhood Cancer Survivor Study, tracking long-term outcomes for more than 15,000 survivors.

Along the way she met and married another legendary cancer researcher, Dr. Alfred Knudson, (also profiled in this issue of Cancer Prevention), who passed away in 2016.

Meadows is the recipient of numerous honors and awards, including a Distinguished Career Award from the American Society of Pediatric Hematology/Oncology and the Pediatric Oncology Award from the American Society of Clinical Oncology.

In 2016, Meadows was selected by ASCO for the inaugural Ellen L. Stovall Award and Lecture for the Advancement of Cancer Survivorship Care.

“It is a privilege to honor Dr. Meadows with our inaugural award,” Dr. Kevin Oeffinger, Chair of the 2017 ASCO Cancer Survivorship Symposium Program Committee, said at the time. “Her work has positively affected the lives of cancer survivors for years to come.”