In December 2015, 48-year-old former oncology biotech CEO Michael Becker was diagnosed with Stage IV oropharyngeal cancer. With a justifiable sense of urgency, he wrote and self-published his memoir, A Walk With Purpose: Memoir of a Bioentrepreneur (available on Amazon) in a matter of months. Through his writing and media appearances, he's become a voice for the rights of cancer patients and for the importance of cancer prevention. I got to talk with him about what people don't realize about the HPV vaccine, the unexpected meaning he found in alternative healing, and what he wants to leave behind.
The irony in your story is that before getting cancer, you worked in the biotech industry on cancer treatments. How did your knowledge of cancer impact your reaction to your diagnosis?
People tend to take their doctor's word as gospel. Very few question that authority, and to some degree, that's not inappropriate. But I understood my diagnosis right away: Hearing "cancer" was tough for me, the way it is for anyone. But hearing "stage four" was even tougher. I don't know if the words "stage four" sink in for other patients. So when it came to treatment options, I knew what I was dealing with, and I was able to push back when I needed to. For me, everything comes down to quality of life. Right now, for instance, my oncologist is adamant that I do chemo again. But when I was on chemoradiation, I was just nauseated on the couch the whole time and I couldn't stop sleeping. For an extra month or two of life, that doesn't seem worth it to me.
You write that had the HPV vaccination been available to you, you wouldn't have gotten cancer. Can you say more about that?
The three HPV vaccines that are on the market—Cervarix, Gardisil, and Gardisil 9—contain the antigen HPV16 that's most prevalent in head and neck cancer, and in cervical cancer. My cancer tested positive for HPV16. About 80 million people in the US have some form of HPV and 14 million people contract it each year. Yet there's no test for it. So I had no idea that I had it. My head and neck are clear now, thanks to chemoradiation. But the cancer cells spread to my lungs. Had I gotten the HPV vaccine before becoming sexually active, it's unlikely that I would have gotten this cancer.
What struck me most of all in your book is the moment when you find out you have only months to live and you tell your wife, "My life now makes sense to me."
When you get a terminal diagnosis, you reflect on your legacy: What mark will I leave on the world? I was asking myself that question when I started thinking seriously about writing a memoir. It was something that had always been in the back of my mind because I thought I had an interesting career journey, but since I'm not a public figure, I thought, Who cares about Michael Becker's journey? Then cancer added a new layer to my story. So I started writing and found that the pieces of my life were very interconnected.
That was so cathartic and eye-opening. Everything clicked. I realized that had it not been for the chain of events that I describe in the book, I wouldn't be where I am today. I'd be an average cancer patient trying to navigate the system. Through the writing, my legacy became extremely clear to me: raising awareness of a preventable disease. So many people don't even know that the HPV vaccine can protect you from six types of cancer.
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Only 18 percent of those who are eligible for it are getting it. And so many demographics aren't being targeted: boys, for example. Not enough boys are being told that they need it, that HPV isn't just a precursor to cervical cancer, that it can also lead to head and neck cancers. Not enough parents are getting their kids vaccinated. Many parents have no idea about HPV's link to these cancers. What a gift I've been given to help educate the public.
What message about health and wellness would you most like to impart to the world?
I'd like to counter the voice of the anti-vaxxers. There's so much push-back on vaccines at the moment and we're paying the price. We eradicated measles in 2000, for example, and now they're back. I understand that people have concerns about vaccine side effects, but disease side effects can be far worse. I'd love to show the anti-vaxxers the ulcers in my mouth and the red marks I had on my neck during chemoradiation. I'd love to show them my chest tube now and ask, "Would this be problematic for your child?"
You end your story in limbo—not knowing whether or not the current treatment is going to prolong your life. What is your prognosis today?
In December, I figured, based on published data, that I had five to seven months. I've made it seven. So I view anything beyond this month as a gift.
I really like this passage of your book: "I don't usually know how to be anything other than intense. I'm always searching, always questioning, always trying to find the meaning in everything."
I got into some things I would have discounted prior to my diagnosis: I've been getting acupuncture. I do sound therapy. I took a Transcendental Meditation course. Transcendental Meditation has allowed me to accept two facts about life: One is that we're all going to die and the other is that we just don't know when or how. That has really helped me. Maybe my cancer is going to kill me, or maybe I'm going to get hit by a bus tomorrow. Who knows? But the question isn't, "Will I die?" It's, "With the time that I had, did I do something meaningful?"
And I feel at peace because I've gotten an awful lot done in 48 years. Sure, I'd love 25 more years with my wife. I'd love to see my kids mature and get married one day. But after I finished the book, I realized I'd had a full life. And now I get the chance to help save some lives. This is more challenging for my wife and my kids because they want me around forever, but I just can't be upset or bitter or remorseful. My life has meaning. If I had another year to live, I wouldn't travel to the Arctic or become an artist; I'd keep doing what I'm doing.
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