Why I Walk: David Frank, MD, PhD

It has become a fall tradition in New England: thousands of people walking up to 26.2 miles in the Boston Marathon® Jimmy Fund Walk presented by Hyundai. Their ages, backgrounds, and circumstances vary, but all take to the course with a common goal: a world without cancer.

One of them is Dana-Farber physician-scientist David Frank, MD, PhD. For Frank, who is preparing for his 22nd consecutive Jimmy Fund Walk on Sept. 24, the event provides an opportunity to reflect on a special individual – and to continue honoring that young man’s wish.

Why did you begin taking part in the Jimmy Fund Walk?

My participation dates to 1996, and is directly related to a patient of mine. Brent Leahey was in his mid-20s and finishing up law school when he developed a recurrence of a rare tumor called a paraganglioma. He went through surgery, chemotherapy, and other difficult treatments, and despite it all graduated from law school, passed the bar exam, and was admitted to the Massachusetts Bar. He was a remarkable person who tremendously impacted those around him.

Brent Leahey.

Brent had told me he hoped that his experience would someday help other people with cancer. When he died in 1996 at age 30, his parents, George and Donna, put those words into action. They formed the Brent Leahey Team, and invited his friends, family, and other loved ones to join them. I walked with the team that year, and have done so every year since.

A year or two ago, Brent’s parents decided to “retire” the Brent Leahey team, but some of Brent’s friends from college and law school, with George and Donna’s blessing, formed a subsidiary Friends of Brent walk team. Now I walk with them. George and Donna still raise money as Virtual Walkers, and we feel their presence out there with us.

Besides the patient connection, how is your participation linked to your work?

The Leahey family generously decided to support my laboratory research with funds generated by their team (and now by Friends of Brent). This support has directly catalyzed research we do to bring new targeted therapies from our lab to clinical trials. This includes a current trial of a new drug that, while focused on one leukemia, has a molecular target activated in many forms of cancer. We are optimistic that positive results of this study will have an impact on many other cancers, and this work was directly accelerated by the funds generated in Brent’s memory.

Do your own family and staff join you on the Jimmy Fund Walk?

Dr. Frank and his children, Rachel and Michael.

My family takes part every year. I have photos from different years in my office; that first year my daughter is on my shoulders, and then you start to see her and my son growing up and walking with us. A lot of Brent’s friends have children now, so through the years it has gone from a lot of people in their 20s and 30s to a whole new generation of walkers coming along.

George and Donna have had the whole team to their home for Saturday night get-togethers before the Walk, and we’ve had Brent’s family and friends visit our laboratory here at Dana-Farber. I think it is good for them to see how their funds are directly being put to use helping develop new cancer treatments, and it’s good for our lab staff to see that all these people are out there supporting their work.

What do you look forward to most about the Jimmy Fund Walk?

All of the components are special, but it comes down to this: We are remembering a very special human being who we miss, and who still inspires us to this day.

Learn more about the Jimmy Fund Walk, to be held in Boston on Sept. 24.