Ramping up cancer research
Dr. Susan Love
Love, president of the Dr. Susan Love Research Foundation, and author of "Dr. Susan Love's Breast Book," will be speaking at a free Lahey Clinic cancer care conference on Friday at the Boston Marriott Burlington.
Q. You’re known for your work on breast cancer, but what do you think about the federal task force’s recent recommendation that men should not get the PSA screen to look for prostate cancer?
A. I thought the recommendations were really very good. I think that what we’re running up against in both breast and prostate [cancer screening] is wishful thinking. We wished that they worked better than they did, but realistically there are real limitations to screening.
Q. Detecting cancer early isn’t enough to prevent it?
A. Early detection was a hypothesis based on thinking that every cancer was the same and grew at the same rate, and that at a certain point it spread all over. If you could just get there early enough you could prevent that from happening. What we’re finding more recently is that it’s very common for us to have microscopic cancer cells in our prostate and in our breasts as we get older. The issue is not finding the cells, but finding the cells that are in a situation where they’re going to cause disease.
Q. What does it take to cause disease?
A. In order to get clinical disease, you need not just to have mutated cells that lead to cancer, but they need to be in a local environment that’s really egging them on. It’s like having a kid growing up in a bad neighborhood with graffiti and drive-by shootings and gangs and drugs. You put him in a new neighborhood and take him to Boy Scouts and church and get him a Big Brother, and he’ll turn out differently.
Q. How do you make the neighborhood unfriendly to cancer?
A. A lot of the things which I must admit I dismissed in my youth are turning out to function in that way: the lifestyle changes. We have some pretty solid data that exercise [reduces your risk for] getting breast cancer and also getting a recurrence. Reducing stress is another one. And weight - what you want to do is not gain weight as you grow older.
Q. Do you do these things yourself?
A. I exercise. I run - slowly. I did the Boston Marathon a few years ago. I try to maintain my weight.
Q. As a researcher, what do you think we really need to know about breast cancer?
A. Believe it or not, although we know all this molecular biology, we still don’t know the anatomy of the breast - we’re still having arguments as to how many ducts there are, how many holes there are in the nipple. We have no idea what the breast is doing when it’s not making milk.
Q. You are recruiting women, by means of the website Armyofwomen.org to volunteer for breast cancer research. Have you had a strong response?
A. We have 375,000 women in the army, 70 percent of whom do not have breast cancer but are willing to participate in studies to figure it out. One of the big costs of research is finding participants in a timely manner and not using your whole budget recruiting people.
Q. Why do you think breast cancer remains so hard to beat?
A. We keep looking at the same risk factors and the same things over and over again, and we really have to look in new places if we’re going to get an answer. That’s what we’re trying to do [in my foundation].
Interview has been edited and condensed. Karen Weintraub can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.