"Da Vinci Code” Author Dan Brown Shares Mom’s Story, Advocates for Cancer Research at Ohio State
Dan Brown, the world-renowned author of best-selling books like The Da Vinci Code and Inferno, spends his life trying to reconcile some of humankind’s greatest puzzles against a backdrop of some of our most mysterious symbols and institutions. His is a world of secret societies, saints, deities, poets, architects, code-breakers, and symbologist.
But it was a doctor-scientist who gave his family one of their greatest gifts: time.
Brown’s mother, Connie – a church organist and music director – was diagnosed in 2008 with chronic lymphocytic leukemia. The disease starts in a person’s bone marrow, often without symptoms, before it progresses to a person’s blood and then lymph nodes.
Connie Brown had been a writer herself, a lover of libraries, the piano and her garden. She kayaked and hiked, and co-authored a book about a small New Hampshire lake she loved. And here was cancer, stealing the vibrancy from her life.
“A decade ago, my mom was dying of CLL,” Dan Brown told a group of philanthropists during a recent visit to The Ohio State University. “You know your mom’s face perfectly, and the light was just going out. You could see it in her eyes.”
Connie lived in New Hampshire, but the family sought out the best care they could find. That led them to Dr. John Byrd and The Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center – James Cancer Hospital and Solove Research Institute (OSUCCC – James). Dr. Byrd is director of the James division of hematology and the D. Warren Brown Chair of Leukemia Research.
Dr. Byrd put Connie on a then-experimental drug called ibrutinib.
“Two weeks later, our family and my mother were hiking Foss Mountain together,” Dan said.
Dr. Byrd warned Connie and her family that leukemia could be clever and cruel. One day, he warned, it would outsmart ibrutinib. When it finally did, Byrd had another drug to try.
“And my mom kept going,” said Dan.
It seemed that every time leukemia outmaneuvered one treatment, Dr. Byrd and his team had another to try. But eventually, Connie’s disease outpaced science. When she died on June 6, 2017, she was at home and surrounded by her family. Her obituary noted her hobbies, her love of her family and her devotion to music. It also noted her gratitude to Ohio State – something her husband, Dick Brown, shared during his visit to Columbus. Dick joked that he and Connie had long been steadfast Michigan football fans, wearing maize and blue on fall Saturdays and always pulling for That Team Up North when the two Big 10 powerhouses clashed. Now however, since meeting Dr. Byrd, Dick and family don the scarlet and gray. “When the one you love falls ill,” he noted, “football rivalries lose their luster.”
“We visited doctors in Florida, New Hampshire, Maine and finally we were connected with the doctors at The James,” said Dick Brown, Connie’s husband and Dan’s father. “And there, in spite of stage four leukemia, Connie was given nine extra years. And they were quality years. We traveled all over the world. And we saw our young grandsons grow from boys to fine young men. The truly great, important work in any university is not on the football field, but it’s in the classrooms and the laboratories and the university hospitals of a great university.”
Protecting that work mattered to Connie. Before she died, she and her family established the Connie Brown Leukemia Research Fund, which helps pay for laboratory supplies, new therapies, drug development and other scientific research that helps move new therapies forward sooner.
Dan Brown and his wife, Blythe, have themselves made a $1.2 million commitment to that work at The James.
Dan and Dick traveled to Columbus in July to meet with other donors who have supported cancer research and care. Donors’ gifts helped make ibrutinib a reality, and continue to support future advancements today. Dan said they have seen firsthand how philanthropy and science give families hope.
Without the generosity of donors, Connie may never have had access to ibrutinib, because without the generosity of donors, the drug may never have seen the light of day. Philanthropy quite literally is startup funding for medicine: it supports research in its earliest stages, before enough experiments have been done to show a treatment has real possibility. It allows researchers to pursue ideas that might not work, in search of ones that do.
When an idea shows promise – as in the case of ibrutinib – the work philanthropy paid for becomes the evidence that sways federal grant-giving agencies to give bigger financial support.
Philanthropists make leaps of faith in scientists, investing in work at its infancy, because of a profound desire to help humankind.
That profound desire, Dan Brown said during his visit to Columbus, is at the core of our humanity.
“I want to talk about just one of the most primal of human instincts… and that is the instinct to help each other, to give of ourselves. We each have a moral compass inside of us and whether that compass is guided by faith, philosophy, family, friends or some combination of all of them, that compass functions on a few fundamental truths that feel like they are inscribed in our human psyche – truths that we all understand viscerally regardless of where we live, what language we speak, what we believe. Those truths simply are kindness is better than cruelty. Creating is better than destroying. And love is better than hate.”
To the Brown family, the nine years they had with Connie after her diagnosis felt like a miracle.
“Of course it wasn’t literally miraculous,” Dan Brown said. “It was medicine, it was science, it was knowledge. And it was made possible by a very old notion, an idea that in ancient Greek is known as philanthropia. As many of you know, philo means love, anthropo means human being.“Philanthropy is literally ‘love of our fellow human being.’”