Matthew Modine
Man on a Mission

The actor has deeply heartfelt reasons to support pancreatic cancer research—
his father and brother succumbed to the disease. But this silent killer and
other causes also stir the activist in him.

By Allan Richter

May 2009

In his recent theatrical run in “To Kill a Mockingbird,” actor Matthew Modine connected with his role as the heroic idealist lawyer Atticus Finch. Teaching his children to act on their moral code, Finch takes on an unpopular case to fight racial injustice. On a personal level, Modine is a father of two and understands Finch’s concern for his children. But the character also stirs the activist in Modine.

Modine supports a number of health and environmental causes, the most personal of which is The Lustgarten Foundation for Pancreatic Cancer Research. The actor’s father died of pancreatic cancer in 1995, and his brother died of complications of the disease last year. “Hopefully someday detecting pancreatic cancer will require nothing more than a routine blood test,” Modine says. “Some of the science is truly mind-blowing.”

Modine with Geena Davis in
“Cutthroat Island.”

But there is something of the underdog in pancreatic cancer that also resonates with Modine. Pancreatic cancer leaves those afflicted with little chance for survival, and Modine says research for pancreatic cancer, which has been called an “orphan disease” for the relatively little support it has received, has been woefully underfunded (see box below, left).

Modine remains sanguine and philosophical about the devastating impact pancreatic cancer has had on his family. “This may sound harsh, but death is a consequence of life,” the soft-spoken actor tells Energy Times. “Who really knows where we come from or where we end up once the journey is over? It is one of the great mysteries of life. What I have learned and continue to embrace is that life is about the journey—learning, loving and discovering.”

Modine’s journey has landed him sometimes cerebral, often quirky and usually memorable roles. It has also put him on the sets of some of film history’s most legendary directors: Stanley Kubrick, Robert Altman and Alan J. Pakula, among others. In Kubrick’s “Full Metal Jacket,” Modine’s Pvt. Joker wears a peace symbol and a helmet bearing the phrase “born to kill.” In Alan Parker’s “Birdy,” his character’s mental disability makes him yearn to fly.

Modine’s activist drive to make a statement is apparent in some of his short-film work behind the camera. Last year, he directed “To Kill an American,” making the point that identifying an American is not so simple. He set up a portable studio and digital camera near New York’s Washington Square Park and filmed brief interviews with a broad cross-section of hyphenated Americans who had immigrated from across the globe.

Modine as Private Joker in Stanley Kubrick’s “Full Metal Jacket.”

Modine, who helped organize recent Earth Day festivities in Washington DC and New York, directs much of his advocacy work toward the environment. He promoted the use of double-sided scripts, saving billions of sheets of paper by halving the average script length to 60 pages, now a Hollywood standard.

On location to film the biblical TV drama “Jacob” in Morocco, Modine grew frustrated by extras and crew members who thoughtlessly discarded their plastic water bottles and littered the desert. “So I went to the mayor where we were and told him when I was a kid, you got paid for returning a bottle and you walked along the street, picked up bottles and you’d have

enough money to buy a soda or candy bar. It was a great way to keep the streets clean,” Modine says. “Since that time they use plastic bottles to manufacture a lot of interesting things in Morocco.”

Modine’s green efforts, like any effective environmental program that makes the most of its resources, straddle both environmental and health advocacy. He founded Bicycle for a Day (BFAD) to encourage people to temporarily leave a smaller carbon footprint and get a cardio workout in the process. Similarly, his earth-friendly taste for homegrown, nutrient-rich foods discourages shipping.

An ‘Orphan Disease’ Gets
Some Attention

Progress on combating pancreatic cancer has often been as elusive as the pancreas itself, a hidden organ whose location tucked behind the stomach makes early detection difficult when
cancer strikes.

Though deaths and occurrences of many cancers are on the decline, pancreatic cancer cases are on the rise, says the National Cancer Institute. Pancreatic cancer is difficult to research because patients typically live only six to nine months after a diagnosis; the five-year survival rate is only 5%, meaning 95% of people diagnosed with the disease will not be alive after five years.

“Early detection is a problem largely because in 85% of the patients who are diagnosed, the disease has already metastasized,” says Robert F. Vizza, PhD, president of The Lustgarten Foundation for Pancreatic Cancer Research. Similarly, only 15% of people
diagnosed with the fast-spreading pancreatic cancer are eligible for surgery, Vizza says.

Compounding these problems, the destructive disease is the fourth-leading cause of cancer deaths yet less than 2% of the National Cancer Institute’s $4.6 billion funding for cancer research last year was devoted to it. “As we got into this foundation 10 years ago we quickly learned that it’s an orphan disease,” Vizza says. “No one had adopted it.”

Lustgarten, named after an executive with chief benefactor Cablevision who was felled by the disease in 1999, has been funding genetic research and studies to help develop a simple blood test to detect the disease in its earliest stages.

Last year Johns Hopkins scientists completed the Pancreatic Cancer Genome Sequencing Project, aimed at decoding the genetic blueprint of the cancer. The project helped researchers identify 63 genetic mutations associated with pancreatic cancer and 12 “signaling pathways,” which indicate how genes affect each other.

“By knowing that, we’re now able to begin to study those pathways for the purpose of early detection,” Vizza says. “We will begin to zero in on which of those agents in those pathways are a driver, which cause the cancer, and which are a passenger, those that mutate because of the cancer. Once we do that we can develop targeted therapies and go into those targets and either turn them on or turn them off.”

Vizza says the foundation this year expects to complete a project identifying pancreatic cancer biomarkers—substances in blood and tissue that show cancer risk before the disease can progress. By identifying the correct pancreatic cancer biomarkers and producing antibodies against them, the foundation hopes a blood test can be developed to identify the disease early.

Researchers have made some strides in pinpointing factors relating to hereditary pancreatic cancer. Johns Hopkins and Ludwig Center for Cancer Genetics and Therapeutics researchers have identified PALB2 as a susceptibility gene for this malignancy (Science Express 3/5/09); PALB2 mutations have been reported in patients with familial breast cancer.
The pancreas is a multipurpose organ.

Enzymes in the pancreas, an elongated, tapered organ, help break down carbohydrates, fats, proteins and acids in the duodenum section of the small intestine. The pancreas also secretes insulin and glucagon, which regulate the level of glucose in the blood, and somatostatin, which prevents the release of the other two hormones when necessary.
—A.R.

“Gardening is absolutely a passion of mine,” Modine says. “Besides being out in nature and the instant gratification that you get from that experience, people who live the longest have that in common—keeping a garden. People thought the reason for their longevity was the physical activity of working outside in the fresh air, but what they discovered over time, kind of recently, is that putting your hands in the soil gives you homeopathic doses of bacteria that help you keep your immune system strong.”

Modine is long familiar with locally grown food. The youngest of seven children growing up in Utah, Modine helped tend his father and grandmother’s gardens, and the family raised chickens. Modine recounts families exchanging produce in mason jars. “It was a really great way for a community to be a strong community,” he says.

Though Modine’s New York City lifestyle is far removed from his agrarian upbringing, the city setting is not short-changing his or his family’s health. The lanky actor favors an urban setting to walk or tool around on his bike—he was spotted biking in Denver during the Democratic National Convention to bring attention to BFAD. And Modine’s vegan wife Cari frequents Manhattan’s health food stores and organic markets for produce.

Of late, Cari Modine has been experimenting with a raw foods diet, which brings Modine back to his arrival in New York City nearly 30 years ago when he sought out the renowned acting coach Stella Adler. In those early days, Modine took jobs as a macrobiotic chef. Macrobiotics still carries weight with Modine as a philosophy.

“The circumstances and environment we live in, our world and the universe are part of the ‘macro’ experience of living; we tend as a species to focus on the ‘micro,’ the details,” says Modine, who is certain that the former, broader view would prompt speedier efforts to harness solar power. “So many early religious beliefs centered on the obvious influence of the sun’s power and its obvious impact on the world,” he says. “Plants, through photosynthesis, have been using the sun’s power for millions of years. It’s about time we do, too.”

Modine says that taking a ‘macro’ approach to food would help eliminate disease. “The body is a complex living organism and each of its many functions, the many organs, requires a symbiotic handshake with each other. The fuel, or food, we put into it affects these complex functions. If we make intelligent efforts at understanding the industrialization of food, the chemicals, hormones, antibiotics, pesticides and multitude of artificial ingredients that exist inside of them, we begin to truly understand why this way of eating is actually a cause for so many illnesses.”

Modine applies his philosophy about food to God’s Love We Deliver, an organization that helps alleviate hunger and malnutrition. Modine helps the group deliver nutritious meals to people with HIV/AIDS, cancer and other serious illnesses. “When somebody slips and falls,” he says, “it’s as important to know what it feels like to help somebody up as it does to be helped up.”

Modine’s habits haven’t always been so healthy. As a fledgling actor, he took up smoking to mimic James Dean. Modine’s father was a smoker, and he acknowledges the link between smoking and pancreatic cancer. He quit smoking only three or four years ago, blaming his “stubbornness” for smoking for nearly a decade after his father’s death. “I was never a habitual smoker,” Modine says. “I could come home and not smoke for four or five months, and then if I went away on location to work on a film I’d just start smoking again.”

Other than the smoking, Modine had long embraced many of the healthy approaches that losing a loved one to cancer might prompt. Still, he says, the loss of his father at age 67 and his brother at 56 raised his consciousness. “It’s so easy to go through life without thinking and not understand that everything has a cause and effect. The things we consume have an impact on this environment that we live inside of,” he says, “and the world is an extension of that environment.”

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