A Doctor’s Fight to End Breast Cancer
October 1, 2014 | Inspiring Stories
“I have every belief we are the generation that can end breast cancer,” said Dr. Susan Love as she prepared to head to the American Association of Cancer Researchers annual conference with one mission in mind: to light a fire under researchers working in the fight against the disease. According to the National Cancer Institute, one in eight women will face invasive breast cancer during her lifetime. Dr. Love wants to help researchers lessen those odds. “We have to show them, give them the reasons why it’s important to refocus this fight in looking for the cause so we can prevent it.”
Dr. Love has dedicated herself to helping women overcome the disease for more than four decades. She wrote what is considered a bible to breast cancer patients and clinicians, Dr. Susan Love’s Breast Book, in the early 1990s after years of studying and practicing in the field. The book is designed to help patients better understand the disease and the treatments available. As she writes the sixth edition, Dr. Love is plowing forward to push researchers out of their comfort zone and, hopefully, toward ending breast cancer.
“This is the mission now, to shift research out of an old path and into a new area. We’re beginning by helping researchers move from conducting experiments on mice and rats and in petri dishes and giving them the opportunity to do research on actual women,” she says. “You know women’s bodies and breasts are very different from rats and mice. Rats and mice might make for nice, neat science, but we need to move this further.”
Dr. Love says that when she first started talking to researchers about using actual women in studies, they told her they didn’t know how to gain access to them. “That, I knew how to solve,” she says. “I knew that we could rally women to the effort.” So Dr. Susan Love Research Foundation launched Army of Women®, an ambitious effort to register one million women to participate in research projects. More than 375,000 women—with and without breast cancer—have signed up, and so far they have helped researchers complete 60 studies and have another 22 currently underway and more in review.
Refocusing Research on Finding a Cure
Last year the National Institutes of Health published a study criticizing the small amount of federal research funds that went to finding the cause of breast cancer. It’s a sentiment Dr. Love agrees with. “Our system as it is right now incentivizes researching the latest drug to treat breast cancer, which is fine but not enough,” asserts Dr. Love. “We want to end breast cancer before it starts, and that’s where we need to push the research.”
Dr. Love and others point out the majority of the prestige and money in breast cancer research flows around finding new treatments that can help a patient survive breast cancer, but there is far less support for research that delves into what might cause the disease, and she sees opportunities for big gains in that. “In my lifetime we saw it happen for cervical cancer. We used to cut out a woman’s uterus if someone received a bad pap smear when I began as a surgeon. Now we know it is a virus that causes cervical cancer to develop, and we created a vaccine to prevent it. We can do that for breast cancer.”
At the height of her career as a breast cancer researcher, Dr. Love took a turn that she says has helped her see the large system changes that need to take place within the industry. At age 50 Dr. Love earned an MBA at UCLA’s Anderson School, and she credits that training with her understanding of how incentives drive everything. At the moment she sees a public frustrated by research that doesn’t connect with their needs and a tightening on research dollars. “If we want to move the research, we have to provide incentives for everyone involved.”
Dr. Love points to work being done to look at possible infectious causes that might create an environment that spurs cancer to grow and mutate. She is also looking at research on how to harness the immune system to fight cancer growth as areas that could provide important advances in cutting off the disease before it starts. “There are ideas out there that could help us prevent cancer. Prevent it. We need to help shift the focus of support to that, and we need to bring patients into the discussion.”
Now it’s Personal
Dr. Love now has an even stronger connection with the women she is helping. In 2012 she became the patient when she was diagnosed with leukemia. It opened her eyes more fully to the urgency of engaging patients. “As doctors, we will sometimes say, ‘You’re lucky to be alive,’ and cut off the patient from giving us crucial information about how they are reacting to the disease and the treatment. My own experience has made me much more aware of those blinders.”
Dr. Love’s experience with chemotherapy made her intimately aware of what she calls the “collateral” damage of our current cancer treatments and the need to address these. “No one really looks at this, not even the drug manufacturers,” she asserts. “But patients have valuable information to share and important questions to ask.”
With that in mind Dr. Susan Love Research Foundation has launched a first-of-its-kind, long-term study to provide a more complete picture of breast cancer as a disease and the treatments. The Health of Women Study™ is using the power of social media and the Internet to gather information from men and women around the world of all ages and health backgrounds to identify trends and risk factors that will help pinpoint the cause and prevention of breast cancer.
“This is exciting to me because it greatly expands the pool of people who can and will participate in research,” says Dr. Love. “Not only will we gather their questions and evaluate the data they provide us with, but it will allow researchers to look at much larger populations on a number of concerns, including things that might cause cancer to grow.”
The first survey due to publish its finding next spring looks at the collateral damage breast cancer patients may have experienced from treatment while assessing them against people in the study who have not had breast cancer treatment. The study also incorporates questions from breast cancer patients about things they want to have looked at by researchers, including looking at lifestyle and environmental influences that may affect cancer rates. Dr. Love and researchers see this as a way of harnessing data from large populations that could lead to a better understanding of not only the effects of cancer and its treatments but also its cause.
After her own bout with chemotherapy and a bone marrow transplant, Dr. Love says she is more motivated than ever. “My own diagnosis was a shock but pushed me forward,” she admits. “I see a real urgency to move things now, not tomorrow. And I hope the work we’re doing moves researchers to bring an end to breast cancer once and for all.”
Army of Women is a registered trademark of Dr. Susan Love Research Foundation. Health of Women [HOW] Study is a trademark of Dr. Susan Love Research Foundation.
Originally published on Northwestern MutualVoice on Forbes.com.