Dr. Susan Love, a surgeon, author, researcher, and activist who was for decades one of the world’s most visible public faces in the war on breast cancer, died on Sunday at her home in Los Angeles. She was 75.
Dr. Troy Elander, LACMA board member and executive committee member, shared his thoughts:
“Dr. Love was brilliant, creative, relentless, loving and ultimately always looking for ways to make things better for patients and community.”
The cause was a recurrence of leukemia, said Allie Cormier, the chief marketing officer at the Dr. Susan Love Foundation for Breast Cancer Research.
Ubiquitous, energetic, forthright (some critics said brash) and at times controversial, Dr. Love, it was agreed, helped reshape both the doctor’s role and the patients with respect to the treatment of breast cancer, which kills more than 43,000 women in the United States annually.
A former faculty member at the medical schools of Harvard and the University of California, Los Angeles, Dr. Love was a founder of the National Breast Cancer Coalition, an advocacy group, in 1991. At her death, she was the chief visionary officer of the Dr. Susan Love Foundation, a nonprofit organization that conducts and finances breast cancer research.
Though Dr. Love retired from active surgical practice in 1996, she remained influential through her writings, lectures, and many television appearances.
She was known in particular for a book for lay readers, “Dr. Susan Love’s Breast Book,” written with Karen Lindsey. Originally published in 1990 and now in its sixth edition, it has sold half a million copies and has long been a de facto bible for breast cancer patients. A seventh edition is scheduled to be published this fall.
She was a central figure in a well-received nonfiction book, “To Dance With the Devil” (1997), an account by Karen Stabiner of the fight against breast cancer.
“Dr. Susan Love’s Breast Book,” originally published in 1990, has long been considered a de facto bible for breast cancer patients. A seventh edition is set to be released this fall.
Dr. Love — who began her medical career as a general surgeon and had previously planned to be a Roman Catholic nun — realized early on that the fight against breast cancer would entail political and medical battles. By temperament and training, she seemed well-armed for both.
She did not suffer fools gladly, and her opinions often pushed against the tide of medical orthodoxy. In an era when surgeons were overwhelmingly male and deference by their female patients was still expected, she exhorted women to ask hard questions about their treatment.
Where tradition favored cutting, Dr. Love favored conservation. She frequently denounced a standard late-20th-century treatment protocol — mastectomy, radiation, and chemotherapy — as “slash, burn, and poison,” instead advocating lumpectomy followed by radiation whenever possible.
“Wanting to keep your breast is not about vanity,” she said in an interview withTechnology Review magazine in 1993. “It’s about being intact as a person.”
Dr. Love was also adamant about what she saw as the limited utility of mammograms in detecting cancer in younger women. (Younger women’s breast tissue is denser and, therefore, less likely to yield visible clues.) Where annual mammograms have long been recommended for women over 40, she argued that most women can wait until they are 50, a stance that has not found universal favor with the medical community. (This May, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force, alarmed by an increase in breast cancer diagnoses among younger women, recommended that women start getting regular mammograms at 40 rather than treating it as an individual decision until age 50.)
In the 1990s, amid the mass entry into middle age of women of the baby-boom generation, Dr. Love ignited controversy with her less-than-enthusiastic appraisal of hormone replacement therapy, then routinely recommended to treat menopausal symptoms. Her position was vindicated some years later, when the therapy was found to increase the risk of breast cancer, heart disease, and strokes.
Dr. Love, in 2008 appeared on “The View.” Though she retired from active surgical practice in 1996, she remained influential in the areas of breast cancer research and treatment, including through television appearances.
In 1992, Dr. Love joined the David Geffen School of Medicine at U.C.L.A. and established a clinic, the U.C.L.A. Breast Center, which she directed. (Now known as the Revlon/U.C.L.A. Breast Center, it is a hub for treatment and research.)
Over time, her teeming schedule of interviews and public appearances, and the absences they involved, caused tension among colleagues at the breast center. She resigned from the center in 1996, though she continued to teach part-time at U.C.L.A., where at her death, she was a volunteer clinical professor.
Dr. Love became associated with the Santa Barbara Breast Cancer Institute, a research center, in the mid-1990s. Now based in Santa Monica, Calif., it was renamed after her in 2004.
The foundation’s projects include the Love Research Army (formerly the Love/Avon Army of Women), an initiative begun by Dr. Love that recruits volunteers from around the world to participate in breast-cancer studies; to date, more than 360,000 people have enrolled, including some men interested in learning about the disease.
Dr. Love is survived by her wife, Dr. Helen Sperry Cooksey, a surgeon, whom she married in San Francisco in 2004 during the brief period when same-sex marriages were being performed there before a California ballot proposition made them illegal in 2008. Also surviving is their daughter, Katie Patton-Love Cooksey, whose adoption by her two mothers in 1993 — Dr. Love was the biological mother; both women reared her from birth — was the first granted to a same-sex couple in Massachusetts. In addition, Dr. Love is survived by two sisters, Christine Adcock and Elizabeth Love, and a brother, Michael James Love.
Today, about a quarter-million new cases of breast cancer are diagnosed each year. Though the disease has a higher survival rate than in the past, its cause has not been identified definitively, and the pre-emptive strike which Dr. Love dreamed of is yet to be.
A technique devised by Dr. Love, known as ductal lavage, can screen patients for an elevated risk of breast cancer. Ductal lavage flushes out cells from the breast’s milk ducts, where breast cancer often originates, so they may be analyzed for abnormalities that suggest an elevated disease risk. But the technique is cumbersome, time-consuming, and expensive, and it is not widely used.
Dr. Love’s other books include “Dr. Susan Love’s Hormone Book” (1997, with Ms. Lindsey), reissued in 2003 as “Dr. Susan Love’s Menopause and Hormone Book.”
If, in the course of her work, Dr. Love antagonized some members of her profession — a collateral consequence, as she saw it if not an inevitable one.
Dr. Love will be missed.