WHEN SUSAN LOVE BECAME THE FIRST female general surgeon on staff at Boston’s prestigious Beth Israel Hospital in 1980, 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. “God damn it, I could do the big operations just as well as they could.”
So who ended up getting referred to her, she says with a laugh, but “a lot of women with breast problems.” Yet these patients turned out to be a revelation to Dr. Love. “I started to realize how women weren’t getting information,” she explains. “If they came in with a lump or what they thought was a lump, the doctor would say, ‘Don’t worry your little head about that, dear.’ Most of these patients were scared to death. I realized I could make a contribution in this area.”
With that, “what started out as a career became a mission,” says Love. Breast cancer is the second largest cancer killer of women (after lung cancer) in the U.S., and the National Cancer Institute estimates that one in eight women, based on a greater than 85-year life expectancy, will get the disease. Yet, despite effective treatments, there is no sure cure, little is known about risk factors, and until recently only a small percentage of research money was devoted to the illness.
Love, 46, is determined to change all that. One part surgeon, one part tireless advocate, she has spent the past two years as director of the UCLA Breast Center, an innovative one-stop care unit that offers screening for women with breast-cancer risk factors (such as a family history-of the illness) as well as surgery, counseling, drug trials and training for medical students. She is also the author of the plain-talking Dr. Susan Love’s Breast Book, which has become something of a bible for women seeking comfort and information and is going into its 13th printing since its 1990 publication. And in 1991 she cofounded the Washington-based National Breast Cancer Coalition to help raise public awareness about the disease. In no small part due to Love’s efforts, federal funding for breast cancer research has jumped from $92.7 million in 1991 to $421 million last year. “I sometimes feel bad that I can’t be in the lab discovering [a cure],” says Love, “but my talents lie in being able to communicate.”
In person, Love is as warm and straightforward as she is in print, the kind of woman who speaks as freely about the fact that she is currently having her period or about her unconventional family (she and her longtime partner, Dr. Helen Cooksey, have a 6-year-old daughter, Katie) as she does about the controversy over the value of mammograms. (Although the efficacy of mammograms for younger women is in dispute, the one thing doctors do know, she says firmly, is that for women over 50, the test saves lives.)
For this openness, her patients cherish her. Cheryl Summerour, a 47-year-old mother of two from Riverside, Calif., had a mastectomy at the Breast Center in 1993. “As I went to sleep on the table,” recalls Summerour of surgery performed by Love, “she was holding my hand and talking about her daughter, and I thought, ‘What could be better?’ ” Says another patient, Marilyn Exley, 54, who was thrilled with Love’s accessibility: “She can carve me up anytime.”
Best of all, Love’s rapport with her patients has in no way diminished her reputation as a specialist and a scientist. Dr. Samuel Broder, the head of the National Cancer Institute, calls her a world-class surgeon and adds, “When she engages in a debate, she slicks to the facts in a way that is very effective.” Broder points to her role in the recent battle over experimental tamoxifen treatments—which she-supports—as an example.
Love, who has never had breast cancer herself, wanted to be a doctor even as a child. Born in Little Silver, N.J., the oldest of five children of Peggy and James Love, she moved to Puerto Rico when she was 13 after her father, a salesman for the Eaton machinery company, was transferred there. Another move brought the family to Mexico City, where Love finished high school. She spent two years as a premed student at Notre Dame of Maryland in Baltimore, when she suddenly decided to become a nun to do good works. “It was the ’60s, and we were all being relevant in one way or another,” Love says by way of explanation.
She was 20 when she joined the School Sisters of Notre Dame in New York City, but it soon became apparent that convent life was not for her. She turned out to be the sort of nun who would sneak cigarettes and then lie to the sisters about why her habit smelled of smoke. She left after five months, finishing college at Fordham University in New York City. In 1974 she got her medical degree from SUNY Downstale Medical Center in Brooklyn, N.Y. and completed her internship and residency at Beth Israel in Boston. She then became an assistant clinical professor in surgery at Harvard Medical School and founded the Faulkner Breast Centre in 1988. Two years ago, Love was recruited to start the UCLA Breast Center in Los Angeles.
By 1979, as she finished her medical training, she decided that the next thing she needed to do was find a man. “And that’s when it occurred to me that I really wasn’t interested in a man,” she says. They’re “perfectly fine for sleeping with,” she volunteers cheerfully, speaking from personal experience. “I just didn’t want to spend the rest of my life with one.” When Helen Cooksey—a fellow surgeon she had met during med school—invited Love to spend the 1982 Labor Day weekend at a cabin in New Hampshire, Love, just looking for a way to get out of town, accepted. “She brought a bunch of books to read, and I was planning to sleep,” says Cooksey, 46, who was already openly gay. “I didn’t get any sleep, and she didn’t get any books read.” The two moved in together a week later and now share a toy-filled, eight-room house in the Pacific Palisades, about 20 miles from downtown Los Angeles.
Love has never hidden her sexuality, and her family accepted it immediately (“Luckily, my mother was already dead,” Love says wryly). As for her professional life, “I feel an obligation to be out,” she says. “It helps others. I like to change the world and fix it.”
About 10 years ago the couple decided it was time to start a family of their own. Alter Cooksey’s attempts to get pregnant were unsuccessful, Love, using artificial insemination with sperm donated by Helen’s first cousin, got lucky on the first try, and in 1988 Katie Love-Cooksey was born. Last year, after a four-year battle that they initiated in the Massachusetts courts, the couple won the right to a joint adoption of Katie, a groundbreaking decision for all same-sex couples that ensures the nonbiological parent’s legal rights to the child in case the couple breaks up or the mother dies. (Love and Cooksey gathered family members from around the country to testify about what great parents they were. “We’re going to keep the transcript for when Kale’s a teenager,” Love jokes.)
For now, Katie is a sunny child who wears flowery dresses and wants to be a ballerina when she grows up. She talks happily about her father, whom she sees at least twice a year and who recently attended her 6th-birthday party. She calls Cooksey, who has left surgery to be a full-lime mother, Mama and Love Mommy. The fact that Katie adores Barbie dolls “is a source of consternation to me—I hate Barbie,” Love says. “But one day Barbie was getting married to Jane, a black Barbie, so that made me feel better. Then Kate said, ‘But Mommy, you know what happened? When they were on their honeymoon, Jane had to go give a talk about breast cancer.’ ”
It’s no secret where that scenario originated. When Love is not performing surgery (which she does two days a week) or seeing patients, she is flying to Washington to meet with Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala about healthcare reform, or speaking to women’s groups or working on the second edition of her book. She fantasizes about going back to school for a master’s degree in public health, but until real progress is made toward discovering a cure for breast cancer, Love is staying on the front line. “What drives me is the frustration of having patients and seeing them die,” she says. “The best we have is not enough.”