Michael Becker: a voice with purpose

Remembrance: Biotech veteran and cancer patient Michael Becker made advocacy personal, speaking out on HPV vaccination, RTT and the need for patient voices

Michael Becker, biotech industry veteran, expert cancer patient, and unstinting advocate for HPV vaccination, died July 9 from HPV-positive oropharyngeal cancer. He was 50.

In the two years since I met Michael, he pursued his advocacy relentlessly, taking every opportunity to speak of the importance of vaccinating boys and girls against the virus that caused his cancer. He was prolific, with numerous articles and interviews, notably on CBS This Morning and Forbes, urging parents to protect their children through vaccination.

There can be no doubt that he achieved his mission to spare others the disease that was killing him; he wrote that friends, family, and strangers told him all the time that his evidence-based advocacy had led them to vaccinate their kids.

He was also remarkably open with his experience, describing his entire journey from finding a lump, through diagnoses and multiple rounds of treatment, in the memoir A Walk With Purpose, in his blog and on Twitter.

Michael spared no detail, writing and speaking about every treatment decision, disease development, side effect and hospital visit, every positive milestone and every bruising setback. In part, he wrote, he shared these things to keep friends and family updated, and for the catharsis that writing provided. But also, he hoped his blog would be a helpful resource for others who had head and neck cancer.

“I suspect many people on the outside will have strong opinions as to whether or not I made the right decision,” he wrote in February 2018. “Entering my third year of treatment, I can say that I’m still not completely sure. There is a long, long list of sights, sounds, and sadness during this period that I would gladly erase from my family’s memory. But there are also many good times that I truly treasure.”

In addition to advocating for HPV vaccination, he promoted consideration of clinical trials as early treatment options, not only as a last resort. He vocally opposed right to try as a “Trojan horse designed to weaken FDA” that failed to offer patient protections embedded in existing expanded access pathways, or to contribute to the collection of data on experimental therapies.

He praised the voices of other patients who blogged about their experience, and wrote of the importance and value of hearing not only the stories of survivors, but also of those who face terminal diagnoses.

He even invited us to learn from his decisions to forgo further systemic treatment in March 2018, and to enter home hospice care this March, writing unflinchingly about his prognosis and his goal to relieve the pain from his metastases, to have a “’good’ death,” and to continue the search for meaning.

“When my treatment changed from curative to palliative intent, I knew that cancer would likely claim my life. It didn’t stop me from living. In fact, in many ways it made me appreciate life even more,” he wrote in March 2018.

I didn’t know him well. But I did have the pleasure of visiting him twice: once at a Memorial Sloan Kettering clinic on a day he was receiving chemo, and once at his home in Pennsylvania, where I met his wife, Lori, Humphrey the dog, and Dolce the cat.

In every conversation and meeting we had, he was kind, and humble, and thoughtful, and generous with his time, even sparing precious hours to provide me guidance and advice as I struck out on my own to launch a non-profit focused on patient education.

He was also a fine writer, and a pleasure to edit, as I learned while working on a guest commentary he provided to BioCentury in September 2017 (see “What If You Build, But They Don’t Come”).

I first met Michael in 2017 through a PR pitch that led to that commentary. A biotech CEO who had helmed two companies that worked in the field of cancer diagnosis and treatment, only to be diagnosed with terminal cancer himself, had written a memoir, the publicist wrote. The author could discuss topics including the importance of the HPV vaccine, the journey from biotech CEO to cancer patient, tips for remaining positive in the face of challenges, how to tell your children that you are sick, and commentary on breaking developments in biotech and cancer treatment. Would I be interested in speaking with him? the publicist asked.

I was, and I did, and I’m grateful for the opportunity. Dare I say, she undersold him.

Susan Schaeffer is President & CEO of The Patients’ Academy for Research Advocacy Inc., a 501(c)(3) non-profit that prepares patients and care partners to drive medical research toward the health outcomes that matter most to them. She was Editor of BioCentury in 2012-18.

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