Dr. Susan Love, Breast Cancer Activist

On Wednesday, Dr. Susan Love, noted doctor and medical activist, came to Swarthmore to give two lectures for interested students. During her lecture at night, she focused on her background in activism and her career of working for change in breast cancer treatment and prevention techniques. “This is a story about how I became an activist,” she said.

When Dr. Love started on her path to becoming a surgeon, the field was open almost exclusively to men, but she overcame prejudice and difficulty to eventually become the chief surgical resident at Beth Israel Hospital in Boston. When she started her own practice, she was determined to not be pigeonholed as a “breast doctor” just because she was a woman.

However, as more and more breast cancer patients came into her office, Dr. Love decided that she could make a bigger difference explaining procedures and options about breast cancer to women than she would by doing stereotypically higher status surgeries.

“You [doctors] weren’t supposed to let patients have a say in it,” said Dr. Love of breast cancer treatments. Mastectomies were thought of as the only treatment; sometimes patients would have their breast removed right after having cancer discovered through a biopsy, without even waking up in between. Dr. Love, however, believed in presenting options and facts to her patients.

To reach even more people than her practice would allow, Dr. Love published Dr. Susan Love’s Breast Book, a book that actually had medical information in it to allow breast cancer patients to make informed decisions. The book was, as Dr. Love said, “a catalyst for the breast cancer advocacy movement.” After the book was published, Dr. Love and her fellow advocates managed to get $300 million for breast cancer reaserch from the Department of Defense budget and passed the Breast Cancer Treatment Act to allow low-income breast cancer patients to get treatment.

Dr. Love is now concentrating on prevention and treatment of breast cancer by both studying the causes of the disease and finding new ways to treat the disease. One project involves a type of band-aid that, when placed over the nipples, can find markers in fluid that tell a woman if she is at risk for breast cancer. Another initiative involves a possible new treatment where chemo is inserted directly into the milk ducts of the breast, where cancer develops.

Besides presenting facts about breast cancer and research, Dr. Love had a message for up and coming activists. “Question the assumptions,” she told students. “It’s the only way we can keep moving forward.”

Dr. Love spoke of the ways she has overcome those who doubted her, from coming out as a lesbian in the Boston Globe, “an empowering experience,” to fighting against hard-line defenders of Hormone Replacement Therapy to get more research done on its effects.

“I thought it was really informative and thought-provoking,” said Zheng Zheng ’11. “As a woman scientist, it’s the kind of thing that can really inspire.”


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