Michael Becker was a biotech executive before he was a patient advocate. When he discovered he had head and neck cancer, he decided to go public, and in doing so made an impact — both within the drug industry and beyond.
Cancer, Becker once said, takes away a lot more than it gives. But he wanted his own experience to show people the risks of the human papillomavirus, which caused his disease, and the importance that preteens get the vaccine that prevents HPV infection. Over the past 10 years, the number of head and neck cancer cases caused by HPV has grown rapidly. In 2018, there were 12,900 new cases in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In total, the HPV virus is estimated to cause 34,000 cancers annually, including cancers of the cervix and genitals.
“I urge all parents to talk to your child’s doctor about the HPV vaccine,” Becker wrote in STAT. “I wish my parents had that opportunity when I was young, as it could have prevented the cancer that’s killing me.”
But Becker, who had served as CEO of one company, Cytogen, and chief financial officer of another, Relmada Therapeutics, also served as a reminder to people in biotechnology that people suffering from disease are not abstractions.
At the Forbes Healthcare Summit last year, he took the stage with a noticeable limp, the result of his cancer spreading to his bone. He urged the audience to think beyond the word “data” when talking about studies of patients.
“Just remember that data, whether it is artificial intelligence or information that’s captured on your computer, there’s a person like me, there’s a person with a family, there’s a person with children, there’s a person who’s been touched by that disease. Just remember data always has a face,” he said.
Becker was diagnosed with stage 4 head and neck cancer caused by HPV in December 2015. Usually, this type of cancer has a high cure rate, and after aggressive chemotherapy and radiation, he was cancer-free for six months. Then, a year after his initial diagnosis, the cancer came back. If it comes back, the disease is often lethal.
He wrote a book about his experience, titled “A Walk With Purpose,” after a direction his father gave him when he was a young man: to walk with purpose, as if he had somewhere to go. His purpose, after cancer, became to speak up about his disease, which he did regularly, including in a segment on “CBS This Morning,” and on a blog that was widely read in biotech circles for Becker’s account of his progress and for pictures of his dog, Humphrey.
Becker was an early believer in the ability of drugs that boost the immune system to treat cancer. He was quick to try an experimental immunotherapy, and believed that it might have helped him survive longer, but also marveled at the degree to which traditional chemotherapy had kept his disease in check. He took a drug he had helped develop to combat chemotherapy side effects.
I got to know Becker a lot better when I decided to make him the subject of a video for Forbes. We did several interviews for it, and I visited him at his home and spent time with him during a chemotherapy session. In one of those interviews, he talked about a decision he was making to not go forward with more treatment, another example of how he was willing to share wrenching personal decisions with the world.
Initially, Becker seemed turbocharged without chemo slowing him down. But his cancer advanced. Today, after Becker’s passing at age 50, there was an outpouring of memories about him. David Sable, an investor at the Special Situations Funds, remembered sitting down with Becker for the first time years ago, when Becker was a CEO. He expected a flood of hype. Instead, he remembered, “The needle on the bullshit meter never budged.”
And it never did. Becker told me again and again that he wanted to have an impact by telling the story of his disease. He did. He certainly had an impact on me.