Michael Becker, 50, of Morrisville, a former biotech executive who used his terminal cancer diagnosis to raise awareness about the virus that caused it and the vaccine that can prevent it, died Tuesday, July 9, at his home.
Even after Mr. Becker began hospice care in April, he continued to enlighten and inspire, using both social and traditional media. Last month, for example, he recorded a video message that was shared at the BIO International Convention in Philadelphia.
In the video, he explained that after his December 2015 diagnosis with oropharyngeal cancer, he was surprised to learn it was caused by human papillomavirus (HPV), which also causes cervical cancer. Infection can now be prevented with Gardasil, an adolescent vaccine that “wasn’t available when I was a preteen,” he said.
“There are still a lot of misperceptions about the vaccine that are responsible for relatively low uptake,” he said in the video. “Helping ensure that other boys and girls don’t suffer my same fate is important to me as I consider my legacy as a former biotech executive and, more recently, as an advocate.”
Among the legions who became fans of Becker is Arthur Caplan, the New York University Langone Medical Center bioethicist and former University of Pennsylvania scholar.
“Having an underutilized, safe and effective vaccine for HPV-induced cancers ... is a tragedy that Michael admirably fought with energy, commitment, and wisdom,” Caplan said.
Mr. Becker was born and raised in Chicago. In A Walk With Purpose: Memoir of a Bioentrepreneur, self-published after his diagnosis, he describes his youth as a bit misspent, culminating with his dropping out of high school. But in his late teens, he discovered a knack for computers and investing, and met his wife-to-be, Lorie Statland, an elementary-school teacher who inspired him to get a college degree.
Mr. Becker went on to become a top executive at three companies — two that developed oncology products — before founding his own biotech communications and consulting firm.
His career was upended in late 2015 after he noticed the neck lump that turned out to be stage 4 cancer. Chemotherapy and radiation at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center seemed to eradicate it, but less than a year later, it showed up in his lungs.
He entered a National Cancer Institute clinical trial of an immune-boosting therapy developed by oncologist James Gulley. The two men had become friends a decade earlier when Mr. Becker, then CEO of Cytogen Corp., donated a radioactive component of another therapy Gulley was working on.
“It was worth about $1.8 million,” Gulley recalled. “He was so generous and so insightful. He was my friend, a pioneer, and somebody whose last mission was to help other people.”
Mr. Becker’s cancer was not stopped by immunotherapy. However, his tumors shrank far more than expected when he underwent new rounds of chemotherapy — a reprieve he theorized was due to the immunotherapy priming his natural defenses.
His blog, “My Cancer Journey” — at turns scholarly and philosophical but never self-pitying — is full of photos of his wife; their daughters, Rosie, 21, and Megan, 18; and his constant companion, Humphrey the Labrador retriever.
His wife proudly watched, and amplified, his impact.
“As a teacher, I’d share his blog posts and parents [of her students] would say, ‘As soon as my kid is old enough, we’re getting the vaccine.'” she said Wednesday. "If his campaign helped save lives — and I’m sure it did — that’s wonderful.”
Besides his wife and daughters, Mr. Becker is survived by his parents, Ted Becker and Joann O’Riley, and a sister.
A funeral will be at 11:30 a.m. Thursday, July 11, at Goldsteins’ Rosenberg’s Raphael-Sacks Funeral Home, 310 Second Street Pike, Southampton. Burial is at Newtown Cemetery.