Dr. Susan Love, a physician who took an iconoclastic approach to the detection and treatment of breast cancer, has died at age 75.
Love, who was out as a lesbian throughout her high-profile career, died Sunday at her Los Angeles home after a recurrence of leukemia, The New York Times reports.
“Ubiquitous, energetic, forthright (some critics said brash) and at times controversial, Dr. Love, it was generally agreed, helped reshape both the doctor’s role and the patient’s with respect to the treatment of breast cancer, which kills more than 43,000 women in the United States annually,” the Times notes.
Love was skeptical about mastectomy — the removal of a breast — as a cancer treatment, saying that whenever possible, surgeons should remove only the cancerous lump and follow up with radiation. “Wanting to keep your breast is not about vanity,” she once said. “It’s about being intact as a person.”
She questioned the value of mammograms for young women, as their dense breast tissue makes it hard to detect cancer through that exam. She recommended that women wait until age 50 to undergo annual mammograms, but most medical authorities still urge that women start at age 40.
Beginning in the 1990s, she expressed doubts about the benefits of hormone replacement therapy to treat the effects of menopause. “Her position was vindicated some years later, when the therapy was found to increase the risk of breast cancer, heart disease and strokes,” the Times reports.
She further encouraged patients to take an active role in their treatment and not be afraid to question and challenge their doctors. She also urged doctors and other health care professionals to be attentive.
As director of the University of California, Los Angeles, Breast Center in the early 1990s, “Love rejected the standard protocol that had a patient running all over town, her X-rays in her bag, seeing one specialist after another and waiting for them to talk and get back to her,” theLos Angeles Times reports. “At the UCLA center, a patient spent the afternoon in an exam room, as one specialist after another came to see her. After that, the doctors sat together to generate a treatment plan, which made little sense in terms of the economics of medical practices, but all the sense in the world for the care of patients.”
She offered each new patient a tape recorder to preserve the details of their doctor’s first conversation about their diagnosis, and said that if friends and family had questions, the patient could hand them the tape and then go to a movie — a sign that the diagnosis wasn’t the sum of the patient’s life. She encouraged each patient to select an advocate and offered them one if needed.
She was particularly interested in isolating the causes of breast cancer so as to prevent it. She developed a technique to analyze cells in the breast’s milk ducts for indications of cancer risk, but because the test is difficult and expensive, it is not used frequently. There has yet to be a definitive determination of what causes the disease.
Love took issue with the assertion that lesbians have an elevated risk of breast cancer. “Studies have identified some of the factors that increase breast cancer risk, and anyone, straight or gay, who has these risk factors — such as never getting pregnant, drinking more than one drink a day, being overweight, not going to the doctor regularly — is at higher risk,” she told The Advocate in 2007. “There is nothing about being a lesbian, per se, that puts you at higher risk.”
Love became a doctor after briefly joining a convent. In addition to her medical practice, she taught at Harvard University’s medical school and at UCLA’s. She helped found the National Breast Cancer Coalition in 1991, and in 1995 she became medical director at the Santa Barbara Breast Cancer Institute, a research organization in California. It is now known as the Dr. Susan Love Foundation for Breast Cancer Research, based in West Hollywood. One of its projects is the Love Research Army, which recruits volunteers to participate in clinical studies.
She wrote books including Dr. Susan Love’s Breast Book, aimed at a lay audience and relied upon by a legion of breast cancer patients. It has sold half a million copies. The first edition came out in 1990, and the seventh is set to be published this fall. Among her other writings is Dr. Susan Love’s Menopause and Hormone Book.
She was out in her professional life, she said, in order to provide a role model for others. She married Dr. Helen Sperry Cooksey, a surgeon, in 2004 in San Francisco during the brief period that then-Mayor Gavin Newsom declared same-sex marriage legal in the city. The women had been partners for years and had a daughter, Katie Patton-LoveCooksey. Love carried their daughter, and their joint legal adoption of her in 1993 was the first by a same-sex couple in Massachusetts. Love’s wife and daughter survive her, along with two sisters and a brother.
Among those mourning Love’s death is People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, which praised her stance against the use of animals in medical research. “What we learn from animals doesn’t always translate into how cancer develops in women,” she once said, and her foundation does not fund, conduct, or commission animal tests. PETA gave the foundation its 2009 Proggy Award (“Proggy” stands for “progress”) for the Most Innovative Health Charity.