Biotech exec facing death urges: Get the vaccine that prevents his cancer
Michael D. Becker, a former oncology biotech CEO, confronts terminal neck cancer by sharing his story and promoting the HPV vaccine, which protects against dangerous strains of the virus that caused his disease.
Like most people who pen a new book, Michael D. Becker is eager for publicity.
But he has an unusual sense of urgency.
A former oncology biotech CEO, Becker has neck cancer. He expects his 49th birthday in November to be his last, if he makes it.
What also drives him to get his message out, however, is this: Children today can get a vaccine that prevents the kind of oropharyngeal cancer that is killing him.
As he collides with his mortality, Becker wants to share his story and raise awareness about the vaccine, which protects against dangerous strains of human papillomavirus, or HPV, the extremely common, sexually transmitted virus that caused his disease. His book, A Walk With Purpose: Memoir of a Bioentrepreneur (available on Amazon.com), was produced and self-published in a creative sprint between December, when his cancer recurred just a year after initial diagnosis and treatment, and April. He also has a blog, My Cancer Journey, and has been conducting media interviews.
"I had a lot of motivation to write the book quickly," he said wryly at his home in Yardley.
In the final pages, he urges parents "to talk to their doctor about the HPV vaccine," which "simply didn't exist when I was a teenager, or it could have prevented my cancer."
The leading vaccine brand, Gardasil, was hailed as a breakthrough when it was introduced in 2006. It is approved to prevent cervical cancer and less common genital malignancies, including anal cancer, that are driven by HPV infections. The vaccine was not clinically tested to prevent head and neck cancers, so it is not officially approved for that purpose, but research shows that it works. A study of young men presented last month found that vaccination reduced oral HPV infections by 88 percent.
Still, many adolescents are not getting the shots, for various reasons.
"It just kills me," Becker says without a trace of irony, "that it's underutilized. There are parents debating about whether to vaccinate their children. I've talked to immunologists about the safety. I had to make the decision to vaccinate my own kids. I was 100 percent convinced."
From dropout to go-getter
Becker describes his own youth as a bit misspent. He left home and dropped out of high school in his junior year, soon after his parents divorced.
"During my teens, I had experimented with sex, drugs, and alcohol while teaching myself how to play guitar and dreaming of becoming the next Eddie van Halen," he writes in his book. "Making it through a number of near-death and reckless experiences during that period now seemed like a minor miracle."
In his late teens, he wised up, got his equivalency diploma, and went to work for his father's investment firm, where he discovered a talent for computer programming. Next came a job as a stock broker in Chicago, where he met and soon married Lorie Statland, an elementary school teacher who inspired him to get a college degree. The couple had two children, Rosie, now 19, and Megan, 16.
Becker went on to have a prolific career in biotechnology, complete with the occasional setbacks (lawsuits and soured partnerships) that are part of that high-stakes world. His resume includes Wall Street securities analyst, portfolio manager, founder of his own communications firm, and top executive of three biotech companies, two of which developed oncology products. During his cancer treatment, he used a prescription medicine that he played a major role in developing while at New Jersey-based Cytogen Corp: Caphosol, an electrolyte mouthwash that treats mouth ulcers caused by radiation therapy.
His diagnosis followed his discovery of a lump under his jaw line on the day before Thanksgiving in 2015. Tests revealed cancer that had spread from a tonsil to a lymph node and surrounding tissue.
At Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York, he opted for chemotherapy and radiation instead of surgery. The operation, he explains, can damage speech and swallowing, and if it doesn't get all the cancer, chemo and radiation are still necessary.
He describes the main side effects of treatment – constant dry mouth and changes in taste – as manageable. And he says he was not unhappy to lose 30 pounds.
Although he sounds almost too stoic, he is frank about "the one major issue I tried to ignore … namely, depression."
"On more than one occasion I burst into a crying session," he writes. "I'm not talking about the quiet episode with sniffles and a tear or two. I mean full-fledged bawling your eyes out accompanied by nasal discharge and the near inability to speak normally."
A sensitive subject
Conspicuously missing from his book, though, is information about head and neck cancer. Over the last 30 years, the epidemiology has changed dramatically in the United States, with a decline in cases related to smoking and alcohol use, and a steady increase in HPV-related cancers. Men are three times more likely than women to develop these malignancies. Of an estimated 63,000 new head and neck cancer diagnoses this year, 11,600 will likely be caused by HPV, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
This surge reflects changes in sexual practices, especially oral sex, research suggests. That's a sensitive issue, as actor Michael Douglas discovered when his candor about his throat cancer and cunnilingus turned him into fodder for tweeters and late-night comics. The thing is, genital strains of HPV are so ubiquitous that almost all sexually active people — not just promiscuous ones — will be infected at some point. It is not clear why, for a fraction of these people, the immune system fails to wipe out the infection.
Becker says he did not wade into this subject in his book because of the scientific uncertainties.
In a recent blog post, he quoted the CDC: "Only a few studies have looked at how people get oral HPV, and some show conflicting results. Some studies suggest that oral HPV may be passed on during oral sex or simply open-mouthed ("French") kissing, others have not. More research is needed to understand exactly how people get and give oral HPV infections."
After his cancer recurred, Becker explored his options and entered a National Cancer Institute clinical trial of an experimental immunotherapy. It seems to have slowed, but not stopped, his cancer, which has spread to his lungs.
He is philosophical about his plight.
"I get up each morning feeling fine. It's not a bad quality of life at the moment," he said. "And I've had just a fabulous life. I've worked very hard, but the fruits of those labors were phenomenal. Being able to travel. Being able to give my daughters what they wanted. I wanted them to have a better youth than I had. I've got the best wife in the world. I've had 25 fabulous years with her. It's hard to look at my situation and have a lot of self-pity."
But he does have a hope: "That by sharing this experience freely, I can help create greater awareness for the disease and its impact."