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Susan M. Love

Susan M. Love

Susan M. Love (born 1948) feels that too many women succumb to breast cancer every year. A breast cancer specialist, Love believes women are losing control over their condition due to the male centered medical community.

Dr. Susan Love believes too many women fall victim to breast cancer each year. And just as disturbing, many of those women are further victimized by the male-dominated medical establishment, losing control of how their condition is treated. Love, a surgeon specializing in breast cancer, is out to change both issues.

A leading authority in her field, Love was director of the UCLA Breast Center, a haven for patients who come for consultation and treatment of the disease that ranks second only to lung cancer as America's leading killer of women. Love is also the author of Dr. Susan Love's Breast Book, a straightforward, no-nonsense and nontechnical look at the hows and whys of breast diseases.

"What drives Love in all this is more than a sense of urgency—she also has profound hope, believing that given adequate funds and intelligent research priorities, the fight against breast cancer can be won, and soon," commented Beth Horner in Technology Review. In an interview with Love, Horner noted that advice given to women about mammograms seems to change almost yearly. "The basic problem," replied Love, "is that no one quite understands the disease yet. We're just beginning to fill in the gaps in our knowledge, and as we do, doctors naturally find themselves reevaluating some of their recommendations."

But Love is certain of one thing: "Breast cancer does send incredible fear through women's hearts, but I don't think that's because it's had too much publicity. I don't even think it's entirely because breast cancer can be fatal." What keeps women fearful—even of examinations—is the prospect of a mastectomy, the removal of one or both breasts. "The breast," Love explained, "has some special psychological baggage—for one thing, there are all the associations of breastfeeding and nurturing the next generation. Then, too, the breast is the most obvious identifying feature of femaleness."

Another problem is that the doctor recommending treatment is invariably male. "Even when the patient has got over the shock of diagnosis, doctors can make it hard for her to come to a good, clear-headed decision about what kind of surgery she wants," Love told Horner. "They'll say things like, 'Well, you're elderly and you're widowed—you don't need your breast anymore. Why don't you just have a mastectomy? It'll be easier.' In my experience, though, older women aren't any more likely than younger ones to want a mastectomy."

Love has come by her insight as both a doctor and a woman. Ironically, the specialty she ended up with was not her first choice. In fact, "when Love became the first female general surgeon on staff at Boston's prestigious Beth Israel Hospital in 1980," Elizabeth Gleick stated in a People article, "she swore that she would not allow herself to get pigeonholed into women's medicine. 'I am not going to let them turn me into a breast surgeon,' she remembers thinking of her fellow doctors."

But the very fact that Love was a female surgeon in a medical field dominated by men led breast cancer patients to seek her out. As Love related in her book: "For any other form of surgery, they might have chosen, even preferred, a male doctor—but for breasts, they wanted someone they instinctively felt would understand their bodies and respect the particular meaning their breasts had for them. I soon realized that I could make a particular contribution in this area: I could combine my experience as a woman with my medical knowledge. I decided to specialize in breast problems."

In 1987 Love was appointed assistant clinical professor in surgery at Harvard Medical School; a year later she founded the Faulkner Breast Center, employing additional women as surgeons, oncologists, nurse specialists, radiologists, and more. Combining research with her political agenda, Love in 1990 cofounded the National Breast Center Coalition, an advocacy group dedicated to awareness of, and funding for, women's health issues.

With the publication of her book and the opening of the UCLA center, Love became a widely sought out figure. In People she detailed a schedule of surgery twice a week, lecturing to women's groups, and the frequent trips from her home base in California to Washington, D.C., to meet with U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala. Spare time is spent with the family—daughter Katie and Love's companion, Helen Cooksey, herself a surgeon. Love, who has made no secret of her sexual orientation, drew headlines in 1993 when Katie, born to Love of donated sperm, was jointly adopted by the two women—a ground-breaking custody case ensuring the pair will share full parental responsibility.

Having worked so extensively in the name of women's health, Love has some words of encouragement for those who have—or fear getting—breast cancer. "The first message I try to get across is that a diagnosis of breast cancer is not an emergency," she told Technology Review. "The typical notion is that you're a time bomb and the cancer is going to take over your body unless you do something tomorrow. Well, that's just not true. By the time they're diagnosed, most breast cancers have been around for years, which means it's unlikely that anything too dramatic will happen right away. You really do have a few weeks to research the subject, get second opinions, sort out your feelings and so on. I also think it's vital to treat women like intelligent human beings who are capable of all that."

In April 1996 Love announced her resignation from the UCLA Breast Center and received a position as professor of surgery at UCLA. She also published two more books on women's health. They include Dr. Susan Love's Hormone Book: Making Informed Choices About Menopause (1996) and To Dance with the Devil: The New War on Breast Cancer (1997).

Further Reading

Love, Susan, Dr. Susan Love's Breast Book, Addison-Wesley, 1990.

Love, Susan, Dr. Susan Love's Hormone Book: Making Informed Choices About Menopause, 1997.

Love, Susan, To Dance with the Devil: The New War on Breast Cancer, 1997.

People, July 25, 1994, p. 147.

Technology Review, May 1993, p. 45. □

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