Today on the blog, we’re talking with long-time St. Baldrick’s supporter Dr. Len Mattano, whose career in the field has included pediatric oncology and pharmaceutical research. His novel is called Celtic Crossing, and he recently discussed his writing and his life’s work in pediatric cancer with St. Baldrick’s Foundation CEO Kathleen Ruddy.
Kathleen Ruddy: You’re a pediatric oncologist with a new internationally launched novel set in Ireland about a family’s multi-generational struggle with cancer. That family is now trying to save a child with leukemia so it’s easy to understand why you chose this subject, but what specifically inspired the novel? Was it a lifelong journey or was it inspired by a particular event or experience?
Dr. Len Mattano: The novel represents a confluence of experiences in my life–streams within a river, as is said. During my subspecialty training I diagnosed a child with her second cancer, then witnessed three generations of her family develop cancers of various kinds. They were affected by what is now known as Li-Fraumeni syndrome. Over the years I’ve cared for other patients with hereditary predispositions for cancer. The dramatic nature of these conditions seemed a strong premise for exploring issues of mortality, loss, forgiveness, love, and the hope of eternal life–universal themes that all humans confront sooner or later.
KR: When people think of the “typical novelist,” they may think of a John Grisham or Sue Grafton type, not a pediatric oncologist and pharmaceutical researcher. How was your writing craft shaped by your professional career, and is there something you learned in the process of writing (and publishing) a novel that you think will help your medical and research career?
LM: My interest in creative writing started in high school. I would have minored in English during college, but our school only offered majors at the time. While I’ve always journaled for myself, writing in all manner of styles has been a constant throughout my professional careers. With practice, craft becomes art. It is a truth that strong writing is rooted in broad reading, and I’m often working my way through a half-dozen books at a time—some of which are fiction. I didn’t set out to write a novel: inspiration for this story demanded it. For me, the life-blood of these characters flows from patients, families, and loved ones who once graced the earth. That perspective reigns in every aspect of my life.
KR: Reading this book, one can sense your deep faith, and the grounding it gives you which you imbue in your characters. Do you think faith in God or a higher power is important when fighting cancer?
LM: Health and wellness are clearly influenced by one’s state of mind. Optimism, support of loved ones, purpose in life, and faith–all contribute to physical resilience and healing. For those who believe in a transcendent being, the breaking-through of the divine into our world is a metaphysical reality. Regardless of personal beliefs, it is important for physicians to tend to the spiritual needs of their patients.
KR: You’re not Irish, yet you set your book there, including side trips to Rome and the Holy Land. Why Ireland principally and what about the Irish culture spoke to you?
LM: I started writing Celtic Crossing shortly after my first trip to Ireland in 2012. Beyond its absolute beauty, culture, and enchanting, mystical qualities, Ireland’s pivotal role in the development of early monasticism–led by Saint Patrick and many others–provided the perfect backdrop for the novel’s historical storyline.
KR: Are there writers you’ve tried to emulate in your work? People like Michael Crichton (who honed his craft during a brief stint in medical school), or Irish-American author Frank McCourt?
LM: Elements of the styles of innumerable authors stir the pot of my own writing: the ingenious storylines in every John Irving novel, the endearing characters and dialog in Patrick O’Brian’s seafaring series, the soul-searching themes in Yann Martel’s Life of Pi–and of course the exceedingly strong sense-of-place in Dubliners by James Joyce. The more poetic passages echo Dylan Thomas, Emily Dickinson, and biblical Psalms.
KR: Those of us who work with or at the Foundation know that “St. Baldrick” wasn’t an actual saint, but what do you think the real saints and other characters would think of him, or the pediatric cancer cause?
LM: Saints are remembered for their exemplary grace-filled lives. For Christians, it isn’t simply emulating Christ but allowing Christ to live through us. In choosing “St. Baldrick” as the patron saint of the Foundation and its most-worthy cause, every donor is reminded that love means selflessly willing the good of the other. This is a major theme in Celtic Crossing, as reflected in its title and characters.
KR: What first got you involved with St. Baldrick’s?
LM: I learned about St. Baldrick’s Foundation through my active participation in the Children’s Oncology Group. Its inception was surely inspired and its rapid success has been amazing. Promoting childhood cancer awareness and research is a cause that touches the hearts of many. That the Foundation helps support this important mission across such a diverse range of institutions is truly unique.
KR: You recently chaired a symposium on cancer predisposition syndromes, including the Li-Fraumeni syndrome which provides the adversity or tension for your novel. The St. Baldrick’s Foundation has funded 19 separate research grants in this area. What direction is this field going in and what are you most excited about?
LM: The development and broad application of genetic sequencing has uncovered a host of heritable conditions that increase the risk of cancer. Identifying individuals with these disorders is a first step toward maintaining health. Delivering therapies tailored to the specific needs of those afflicted with cancer is a second step. Ultimately, devising interventional strategies to prevent cancers in these populations is needed–and that research is underway.
KR: You no longer directly work in patient care, but work with the pharmaceutical industry to engage them in cancer projects. For our readers, can you describe the brightest opportunity you believe exists today to bring academia, government and charitable organizations together with pharmaceutical research to develop more effective cures for kids with cancer?
LM: Thank you for this important question, and I would include regulatory agencies (e.g., the US FDA) on that list. Two decades ago, collaborative opportunities with pharma in developing new therapies for children with cancer were relatively few. The breakthroughs in targeted and immune therapies have opened the floodgates, substantively benefiting childhood cancer and other so-called orphan diseases. One of my roles in the Children’s Oncology Group is as Chair of the Industry Relations Committee. Our mission is to expand dialog and open doors for fruitful partnerships.
KR: Your resume is extensive, and you have spent your entire career in some combination of medicine, pediatric oncology, and pharmaceutical research. If you were to summarize your life’s work in just a couple sentences, what would you say?
LM: I would simply quote our motto for volunteers at Camp Catch-a-Rainbow in Michigan: It’s all about the kids.
Join us today and #DFYchildhoodCancers!
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