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Remembering Dr. Susan Love (1949 – 2023)

by Dr. Jane Petro

Susan Love, MD, MBA

The “Army of Women” now known as the Love Research Army, has lost its general. The Army consists of over 390,000 volunteers who provide a database available for breast cancer research. Its founder, Dr. Susan Love, has died. This followed a relapse of leukemia first diagnosed over a decade earlier. She was a warm, friendly, outspoken and fearless woman with a radiant smile, whose career as a surgeon, as a research director, and as a thought leader helped improve the lives of millions of women with or at risk for breast cancer. Her career was characterized by a refusal to accept many things that most people would characterize as “the norm.” A brief career as a nun was followed by college, medical school, a residency in surgery, and a focus on breast cancer care that only later seems inevitable. Initially reluctant to be seen as “only a breast surgeon,” she realized that standard treatments discounted the wishes of the women. She was an early promotor of minimal surgery, favoring lumpectomy in early disease over mastectomy and overall objecting to what she characterized as the “Slash, Burn, and Poison” approach to breast cancer. A ground breaker in so many ways, Susan “came out” early in her career, and was the first female general surgeon on the staff of Beth Israel Hospital in Boston, going on to found the Faulkner Breast Center in Jamaica Plain. She was a fearless advocate for treatment that minimized the toxic effects of excessive therapies. Her unique ability to challenge authority led all of us to better knowledge of the role estrogen plays in breast cancer risk, a clearer understanding of the role breast anatomy, especially the configuration of the ducts, plays in DCIS, and descriptions of what she described as the brain fog of chemotherapy even before her own experience proved it. Susan was well known for her political activism, clinical research, public speaking as well as author of a bestselling book “The Dr. Susan Love Breast Book” considered the “bible” for those wanting to self-educate about breast cancer and other breast conditions. In 2015, AMWA honored her by establishing the Dr Susan Love Writing Award given annually since then. Past and current winners can be found on the AMWA website. Susan’s wife, the surgeon, Helen Cooksey, MD FACS is a life member of AMWA.

Even as a patient, Dr Love was a participant in clinical trials. Her bone marrow transplant originally gave her more than a decade of disease-free life, during which she continued the work of the Dr Susan Love Foundation for Breast Cancer Research. In the last 2 years, after she relapsed, Susan enthusiastically embraced one after another novel intervention undergoing additional chemotherapy, radiation and manipulated stem cell infusions via clinical trials from Germany. An advocate for promoting health, Susan continued to train for marathons while undergoing her original bone marrow transplant, walking miles every day in the hospital, masked and pushing her IV pole. Quitting was not part of her DNA.

Susan met her long-time companion of over 40 years and wife, Dr. Helen Cooksey, when they were surgeons at Beth Israel. They were among the pioneers in creating pathways for lesbian couples to form biologic families, conceiving with sperm donated by Helen’s cousin. They made same sex families legal in 1993, when they sued the state of Massachusetts to permit the names of both the birth and non-birthing mother on the child’s birth certificate, considered a landmark decision for LGBTQ IA+ families. Their relationship has been reconfirmed several times, first in Vermont in 2002 with a civil union, then married again in LA during the brief first window of possibility in 2004, followed by a third marriage commitment in 2008 when it was re-legalized in California.

Those of us who knew Susan Love understood the important role she played in life and in medicine. A wider acknowledgement can be seen in the near simultaneous obituaries appearing in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe, Washington Post, National Public Radio and other sites.

At the time of her death, Susan was at home with both her immediate and extended family. Those present included Helen, their daughter Katie Patton-LoveCooksey, Katie’s wife and many others. She was truly surrounded by Love!

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