Larry Norton, MD
He was once laughed at for pouring his talent into the “reviled” field of oncology, but Larry Norton, MD, said he was driven by his passion to learn about cancer. In fact, even now, seldom do his thoughts or actions stray far from the problem of how to cure this disease. “There’s a constant churn of activity toward making a difference— my own research, teaching, taking care of patients,” said Norton, who is deputy physician in chief for breast cancer at Memorial Sloan Kettering (MSK) Cancer Center, New York, New York, where he also serves as medical director of the Evelyn H. Lauder Breast Center.
His dedication moves full speed ahead almost all of the time, and when Norton is not engaged in fighting the battle against cancer, he is a husband and father who unwinds by hiking in Vermont, skiing with his wife, and going to the theater. He is also very passionate about music.
Norton, who is conservatory trained, was initially interested in becoming a professional musician. He can play multiple instuments, from the keyboard to the guitar to woodwinds. In 2010, he even hit the stage for a duet with Sir Elton John at a breast cancer charity event. Elton played the piano, Norton the harmonica—a performance the celebrated oncologist and musical talent says he will never forget.
The Aha Moment
As a youth, Norton knew the extremes of environment that New York has to offer. He lived in the Bronx, the poorest borough of New York City, and Valley Stream, a suburb of wealthy Nassau County in Long Island. His father was a journalist and his mother a secretary. Somehow, the bug for medicine flourished in the younger generation. His sister became a pediatric radiologist and is now retired. But before medicine even crossed his mind, Norton earned a living as a truck driver by delivering fishing tackle.
When the 1960s arrived, Norton was a struggling musician. He grew his hair long and could be found playing the bongos and saxophone in Greenwich Village. The Vietnam War was raging in the background. It was then that the study of medicine attracted Norton, and he nourished that interest by going to college. He did not serve in Vietnam, but during the war he did serve in the US Public Health Service after finishing medical school.
It was during a summer rotation at Roswell Park Memorial Institute in Buffalo, New York, when he was taken under the wing of William Regelson, MD, that something happened that made Norton decide that oncology was the right choice for him. “I was just a college student at the time and [Regelson] said to me, ‘I want to show you something,’ and he brought me to see a patient who had a pelvic tumor that had erupted through the pelvis up to the skin. It was this big, ugly, horrible-looking cancer. Bleeding, smelly—really the kind of nightmare that cancer can be,” Norton recalled.
Over that summer, Norton watched the tumor melt away under Regelson’s care. The patient’s skin closed and healed. She was able to be discharged and treated at an outpatient facility.
“I thought it was the most magical thing I had ever seen in my life,” Norton said. “It was like I saw this monster that was devouring this patient and a medicine—carefully chosen to work in this setting—was making this obviously fatal process just go away. Everything about that experience was something that I knew I had to do, and that convinced me that I belonged in medicine and not in music. The fact is that it was the great science, the great clinical thinking, and Regelson’s intuition—I mean everything good about the world was in that one case. And that was my revelation.”
A Pioneering Moment
When Norton entered the field of oncology, it was overshadowed by pessimism. Few believed that oncology would become a promising branch of medicine unto itself. In medical school, Norton’s mentor once said to him, “Larry, you’re so good with your hands. You belong in surgery. It’s surgery that really helps people. You don’t want to get involved in drug treatment of cancer. It’s never going to go anywhere. We can’t kill cancer with drugs.”
But Norton said he was encouraged by the pioneering spirit of some of the founding doctors of the field, such as Emil “Tom” Frei III, James Holland, Vincent DeVita Jr, and Paul Carbone, who trained him and made the field of oncology more and more attractive to him. “Oncologists are very special people. You’re dealing with very severe illness and it’s not always a success, but you’re always dedicated to making things better,” said Norton. “We are making progress faster and faster.”