Breast cancer expert Dr. Susan Love

A longtime advocate of preventive breast cancer research, Love describes her personal journey as a cancer patient.

Susan Love has dedicated her professional life to the eradication of breast cancer. She's a "founding mother" of the breast cancer advocacy movement and regarded as one of the most respected women’s health specialists in the U.S. Love founded/co-founded the National Breast Cancer Coalition, Boston's Faulkner Breast Center and the Revlon UCLA Breast Center in L.A. and is a clinical professor of surgery at UCLA’s David Geffen School of Medicine. She's also president of the Dr. Susan Love Research Foundation and author of Breast Book, now in its 5th edition and described by The New York Times as "the bible for women with breast cancer."


Tavis Smiley: But before we get to those conversations, as this is our 10th anniversary season here on PBS and we’re headed to our 2000th episode, we want to continue introducing you to some of the folk who make this program possible every day.

And so joining me now is Kimberly Logan. She’s one of our senior producers. She identifies and books the guests you see on this program every night and then she helps me to frame those conversations. She’s been with me for six of my 10 seasons and, Kim, I’m glad to have you on our program.

Kimberly Logan: Well, I’m glad to be here. You know, they say time flies when you’re having fun, so I guess I’ve been having a lot of fun because it seems like I just started and we were at 1,000 shows. And later this month, we’re at 2,000 shows in 10 years, so I just want to say congratulations to you, congratulations to the team and thank all the viewers for watching.

Tavis: Well, we appreciate you being on the team to make all that possible. So you want to take this away?

Logan: Yes, especially now that this was the third take doing this [laugh]. So a conversation with Dr. Susan Love and Peter Blair coming up right now.

Tavis: Dr. Susan Love has been at the forefront of the breast cancer research and advocacy for more than two decades now, both as a surgeon and as the president of the Dr. Susan Love Research Foundation. But when she was diagnosed with leukemia, fortunately now in remission, her world turned, as you can imagine, upside down as the doctor became the patient. Dr. Susan Love, good to have you on this program.

Dr. Susan Love: Thank you. It’s good to be here.

Tavis: What is the most difficult part about a doctor becoming a patient?

Love: Well, for one, you rarely get a disease that you actually specialize in, so you don’t know and you’re scared and you have all the same feelings. And if you did have any information, it goes out the window as soon as somebody tells you that you have a life-threatening disease.

So it’s not that different except that you know that the doctors actually don’t know the perfect answers [laugh], so you have to search around a little bit better for other opinions and people you trust.

Tavis: So I perhaps should ask this of your physician, but since the physician isn’t here, I get to ask you. That is, whether or not you were a good patient?

Love: I think I was a pretty good patient, yes, I think so. I think that what you have to do when you’re diagnosed with something like this is you got to get a couple of opinions, you got to find somebody who you trust, who you really trust to make the decisions and judgments. And then you just got to let go and let them take care of you because you really can’t do both things.

You can’t be the physician and the patient at the same time. If you do, they always say the person who has himself as a doctor is a foolish patient because you really can’t do that. You just are too emotionally involved to be able to make the right decisions.

Tavis: I know that one size doesn’t fit all, yet I’m gonna ask anyway, and that is whether or not you think that you were more scared or less scared or about the same, given the fact that you happen to be a physician and you are obviously a bit more learned. Not an expert on leukemia, but certainly more learned about medicine. So do you think you were more scared, less scared than your patients?

Love: In the beginning, probably more scared because I knew what the statistics were.

Tavis: Oh, yeah.

Love: And I could, you know, look up the papers and could find out. But really what you learn with any disease is, even if 99% of people die, if you live, you’re alive. You know, if 99% of people die and you live, you’re there. So once I realized I just had to let go of all of that and stop researching it and just trust the person and the institution I’d chosen and get through it one step before the other, I think then I was a better patient.

Tavis: How were you – again, they’re not here to ask, so I’ll ask you – how were you to be around family, friends? How do you think they processed you, a physician, going through this?

Love: Well, my family was terrific and they actually rallied around. With leukemia, as opposed to a lot of diseases, a lot of the treatment is in the hospital, so you’re in the hospital for a period of time on chemo. You’re in the hospital for the bone marrow transplant. And my siblings, my sister and brother, came down and took 24-hour shifts from Santa Barbara. My wife was with me; my daughter came back from the East Coast.

So they were not at all impressed with the fact that I was a physician patient. They were just taking care of me as their loved one and their family one, and it was just wonderful. Because you really do need in the hospital somebody on your side to remind the nurses that they haven’t done this yet and you can’t do it yourself. And having family there makes a huge difference.

Tavis: How has this experience made you a better physician where your patients are concerned?

Love: Well, I had only said this, but it was more words and now what I really know is that all of our treatments have a lot of collateral damage. They cause a lot of side effects, some of which are permanent. And as physicians, we just disregard them. We say you’re lucky to be alive.

Because as a physician, you’re comparing the person to the ones who die and you’re saying, well, you know, see how good I did. But as a patient, you’re comparing yourself as how you were before you got sick and now you’ve numb feet or you’ve got other problems.

There’s all kinds of side effects. There’s increases in heart disease from the chemotherapy or different side effects. It’s the same with surgery. You know, we can never bring it back to perfect. And I think doctors don’t pay enough attention to that, either the side effects of drugs or the side effects of surgery or the side effects of radiation, and we just say you’re lucky to be alive and deal with it. I think we need to pay more attention to really what we’re causing.

Tavis: Speaking of luck, you and I were joking when you walked on the set here that there’s a reason why – I say it to you – they call it the practice of medicine.

Love: Right [laugh].

Tavis: How confident were you – not in the physicians themselves per se – but how confident were you in the whole medical process that you had to be subjected to to help you get to your healing and to your remission? How confident were you in that because the rest of us who happen not to be physicians – I mean, I put my faith ultimately in God. I’m a Christian.

Love: Right.

Tavis: But beyond that, when I’m on the table and the anesthesiologist walks in, my life is in his or her hands and the doctor doing the surgery. My life is in his or her hands, sometimes a team of physicians. And yet, I have no choice but to trust the process ’cause I don’t have any other option.

Love: Right.

Tavis: But as a physician, again, who’s on the other side of this, how confident were you in the process that you were subjecting yourself to?

Love: Well, I certainly got a second opinion and I advise people to do that for serious things. I was very comfortable with the institution where I was treated at City of Hope and the nurses and the whole team. What I’m not as sure about and I think because it evolves is the actual treatment. The drugs change.

You know, what we use today we may find out five years from now, oh, we would have done much better if we’d done this other one. Or what they’re finding in leukemia is very often the transplant itself is the treatment. I have my sister’s blood cells now and if any leukemia cells pop up, they look at them as foreigners and they kill them off.

So in some ways, we’re learning that the chemotherapy probably is less important and the transplant’s more important, yet we’re still giving the chemotherapy that we gave 20 years ago with all of its side effects. So I do think treatments will change and they’ll evolve over time. But you’re sick now; you got to take what they got now.

Tavis: So you said earlier that so often when physicians do get ill, they don’t get ill or they don’t get diagnosed with the thing that they are an expert in.

Love: Right.

Tavis: So your work, as we all know, you’re an expert in the field of breast cancer. How has surviving the leukemia – find the right word – how has that inspired your work on breast cancer?

Love: Well, it really has shown me that what we have to do with breast cancer and with all cancers is look for the cause. We have all this emphasis on the cure, but the cure with all its side effects may not be worth it to some people. And if we could prevent it in the first place, then that would be better.

In my professional career, we went with cancer of the cervix from doing surgery and hysterectomies because we didn’t know what else to do, to having a vaccine within 30 years. And now my daughter’s been vaccinated. That’s great. So they don’t have to have chemo. They don’t have to have surgery. They don’t have to have any of those things. They’re not gonna get it.

And if we could find out what the cause is of other cancers and prevent them, that would be a much more important goal, I think, than adding more poisons and chemotherapy drugs and things like that.

Tavis: How we doing on breast cancer?

Love: Well, we’re okay, but still 110 women are dying every day. You know, there are some cancers we’ve made some progress, but there are different kinds of breast cancer and there’s still a lot of problems, a lot of problems in terms of breast cancer.

And it would be great if we could figure out what causes it and have it not happen in the first place and that’s what we try to do at the Dr. Susan Love Research Foundation. We’re really focused on let’s find the cause and let’s stop it.

Tavis: I guess another version of how we’re doing on breast cancer because you’re involved in this as well through your foundation. How are we doing on awareness? Because so much of this, as you know, particularly and especially for women of color, is early detection and all the other things that they seem to not have access to. But how we doing on the issue of awareness?

Love: Well, awareness we’re great on. When the NFL is wearing pink, we’re aware [laugh].

Tavis: Exactly. That’s why I asked that question, yeah, yeah, yeah.

Love: We’re aware. That is not the issue. The issue is figuring out the different kinds ’cause early detection works sort of. What we’ve found is, there are different kinds of breast cancer and actually, with women of color, they get the more aggressive kind of breast cancer.

Tavis: Triple negative. My radio producer, we talk about it all the time, Sheryl. We lost her to triple – a Black woman, 42 years old, triple negative just took her out of here.

Love: Exactly. And that’s not the kind that mammography is very good at.

Tavis: Right.

Love: So we focused on finding the cancers on x-rays, but what we really have to do is figure out why people get triple negative and how can we stop it from happening in the first place. And really, globally, triple negative is also the cancer that you see.

So a lot of what I sometimes – the cancer that older women get is more slow-growing, it’s sensitive to hormones, it’s picked up on mammograms, but that’s not what’s killing people. So we have to focus on the ones that are killing people and we have to find the cause.

Tavis: Tell me more, finally here, about the work that you hope to do in the coming years now that you’ve had a new lease on life – and I’m glad you’re here.

Love: You and me both [laugh].

Tavis: Yeah, as is your family. Tell me more about what you hope to accomplish in the years, however long that is you have left, through your foundation.

Love: Well, I’m more impatient than ever. I’m not gonna put up with a lot of junk anymore because you don’t know how much time you have and you really have to work as fast as you possibly can.

We’re trying to get the voice of the women involved in this and we have an army of women, over 370,000 women who’ve signed up to be in studies to find the cause. We have the house study which is gonna track women over time and try to pick up what the cause could be. And we’re collaborating with all kinds of other groups.

You know, I’m too old to fight with people. We just want to bring everybody to the table that can help us find the cause and end this disease so that our kids don’t have to have breast cancer in their lives.

Tavis: You don’t want to fight because you’re a lover.

Love: I am a lover [laugh].

Tavis: Not a fighter. Her name, Dr. Susan Love, wonderful work down through the years on breast cancer and, thankfully, has survived leukemia, will continue her work for a number of years to come on this disease and we will not rest until there is a cure for. Dr. Love, good to have you on.

Love: Thank you very much.

Tavis: Thank you for being here.

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Last modified: July 1, 2013 at 1:23 pm