By Paul Feinberg
Dr. Susan Love ('98) wants to eradicate breast cancer.
It's a goal simply stated, but not so simply achieved.
A featured speaker at UCLA Anderson's upcoming KICK Conference For Women on January 22 - Love has attacked breast cancer as a surgeon, as founder of both the Faulkner Breast Center in Boston and the Revlon UCLA Breast Center in Los Angeles, as author of the definitive Dr. Susan Love's Breast Book, as an entrepreneur, spokesperson, advocate and now president of the Dr. Susan Love Research Foundation.
"It really doesn't matter to me," Love said recently, from her Santa Monica ocean-view office. "I really look at what route will best get me there at any one time. It's really picking which road to take right now, or which two roads to take right now, as opposed to changing the goal. The goal has never changed since I started my career."
The goal - eradicating breast cancer - is not necessarily the same thing as "curing breast cancer" though Love would certainly consider that a great accomplishment. But curing breast cancer means women (and some men) would still be getting breast cancer. What Love seeks is a vaccine or some other preventative measure that precludes anyone from getting this cancer in the first place.
Love uses cancer of the cervix as an example. When she was training as a surgeon, an abnormal pap smear led to an immediate hysterectomy because she says "we didn't know what else to do - which meant you lost your fertility. And basically cutting out a body part for prevention is really pretty crude." But research eventually showed that cancer of the cervix was sexually transmitted, that it was a virus and now there is a vaccine. "In 30 years," Love says, "we went from cutting everything out to being able to prevent (cancer of the cervix.)"
"Why can't we do that with breast cancer," Love asks emphatically. "That's the question. The problem with breast cancer is that we talk about risk factors all the time, but 70% of women who get breast cancer have no risk factors. They do everything right and they still get it. What that means to me is we really don't have a clue as to what causes it."
As Love gets going, her passion becomes palpable. She doesn't hesitate to grab a legal pad and begin sketching charts and graphs to illustrate her points. It's not quite excitement she exhibits - the subject is too serious for that - but unwavering determination. - There is a disease out there killing women and come hell or high water, Love is going to find a way to beat it.
One of Love's current projects comes through her foundation launched in October 2008 with a grant from cosmetic giant Avon. Dubbed "The Love Avon Army of Women" the foundation is looking to recruit a million women who are willing to participate in research. Women (in truth men are also encouraged to sign up and participate) are asked to sign up online and share specific personal information. Simultaneously, scientists submit peer approved studies to the Love Research Foundation and Love and her team determine which are worth the effort of the army. If a study meets approval, it's then sent out to signed-up participants who, if they meet the criteria of the study, are encouraged to RSVP. They're then screened for compatibility and if all goes well, they're passed on to the scientists and researchers.
The research problem Love is trying to overcome is that most research is currently done on lab rats and other animals. They are easier for scientists to work with because they are more easily controlled than human subjects. But, explained Love, research done on animals does not necessarily translate to people. So, she is trying to get people to participate in the research. Underway for just over a year, the project has been very successful. At this writing, over 325,000 people have signed up, 18 studies have been sent out and most were closed within 24 hours. In the past, scientists would pore over databases looking for subjects that matched their criteria. By sending out each study to the entire database, Love has expanded the list of potential subjects. As an example, Love mentions a study that needed women who were breastfeeding. Instead of limiting the search to breastfeeding women, everyone was able to learn about it and the 80-year-old grandmother whose granddaughter or neighbor is breast feeding is able to reach out and virally make the connection.
Love's foundation also conducts independent research including a current effort to develop a home test to see who's at risk for breast cancer. Such a test can't come soon enough, particularly in light of the current firestorm involving mammographic guidelines. When the issue made news late last year, Love was
one of those called upon by the media to bring some clarity to the situation.
"The problem is that mammography doesn't work well in young women and we sort of sold (mammography) as early detection and therefore prevention," Love said. "Early detection is not prevention, it's finding cancers that are already there. And it doesn't work very well in young women because young women have dense breasts on a mammogram. So, the breast tissue is white and the cancer is white so it's like looking for a polar bear in the snow."
"The magic of turning 50 is menopause. Once you go through menopause your breast tissue turns to fat because you don't have to make milk anymore. That's gray, cancer is white and the mammogram is a great tool. It's not that we want to deprive women of their god-given right to be radiated, it's just that it doesn't always make sense - they're getting radiated with not much benefit and the downside is that radiation every year is more risky in young women. We need to find something better."
The question facing Love is what exactly is causing breast cancer in young women. She thinks it could be a virus, but really doesn't know. So, she's searching for a test for young women to determine who might be at risk. "You're looking for a needle in a haystack," Love said, "and we need to find a way to make the haystack smaller. It needs to be easy, cheap and you need to be able to do it at home. You don't care if there are false positives because it's only a test to see who's at risk; you're not trying to find cancers. We're working on one - it's like a Band-Aid you put on your nipple and then you massage your breast and squeeze. If you have fluid it will turn blue and then you can put another solution on it and find markers in the fluid. All breast cancer starts in the lining of the milk ducts." At present, Love has a grant to do the research and is currently doing testing in China. There is a prototype and clinical trials start in March. She believes they'll know if the prototype works in about three months.
Susan Love came to Los Angeles when she was recruited to start up the Revlon UCLA Breast Center. After four years, it was up and running and she decided to get her MBA at Anderson. At about the same time, she wrote a book about the dangers of hormone therapy for menopausal women that prompted Malcolm Gladwell to write a New Yorker story called "How Wrong is Susan Love?" In retrospect it should have been called "How Wrong is Malcolm Gladwell?" "A lot of people told me they were glad I was speaking out - because somebody has to do it, but nobody wanted to take the heat. I'm willing to take the heat," Love said with just a hint of defiance.
Love says that her EMBA experience "really gave me a much better understanding of how the world works. It gave me the tools to understand. Accounting - I wasn't very good at it. But I had a great time, I enjoyed it. It gave me a really a new understanding of how the world works and you can't change the world if you don't understand how it works."
Today, Susan Love not only understands branding, she is a brand in and of herself. She willingly acknowledges that fact, but is quick to point out that the creation of her brand was not a matter of self-aggrandizement; rather it was the way to get things done. The concept began with her book (the first edition was published in 1990, and she's currently finishing up work on the fifth edition). Her name was used in the title so that readers would know it was written by a female doctor. As her advocacy advanced, it became clear that it was beneficial that said advocacy came from someone the public trusted - so her name remained out front. That concept continues today with the "Love Avon Army of Women."
For now, the search for the cause and the vaccine continue. "I don't want the cure for breast cancer," Love says. "I want people not to get it in the first place. The end game is no more breast cancer. My life will always be about trying to find the end of breast cancer. If I haven't found it by the time I die, I will die trying."