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Calling Dr. Chang

The Revlon/UCLA Breast Center Spent More Than a Year Wooing Its Soft-Spoken Successor to Susan Love. The Result? Helena Chang--Esteemed Scientist, Lauded Surgeon and Apolitical Anti-Activist.

June 21, 1998|LISA LEFF | Lisa Leff's last article for the magazine was about the City News Service

As she sits next to Cindy Crawford in a conference room at the Revlon/UCLA breast center, Dr. Helena Chang, lauded surgeon and cancer researcher, looks as if she would rather be any place else on earth. It's the day before the annual Fire & Ice Ball, the glittering Hollywood gawkfest-cum-gala that raises millions for women's cancer research at UCLA. And in a stroke of public relations moxie, Revlon has enticed "Entertainment Tonight" and "Good Morning America" to visit the labs and clinics where the money goes by offering up its spokesmodel as guest interviewer.

As the breast center's new director, Chang is an obvious choice as interviewee. But with a boom mike hovering and a roomful of strangers staring, the strain of the public appearance shows in her tight smile and clenched hands. The 49-year-old doctor, fresh from a morning spent cutting another woman's flesh with an electric scalpel, flinches when Crawford reaches over to brush a strand of hair off her face. Her answers to softball questions sound stiff, despite several rehearsals.

As soon as the crew starts to pack up, Chang slips out and begs off the next stop, a date with CNN.

"They don't need me, do they?" she asks a UCLA spokesman stationed in the hall.

It's optional, he says. "So that was harder than operating, huh?"

"Absolutely."

It's difficult to imagine a similar scene starring Chang's predecessor at UCLA, the outspoken and camera-ready Dr. Susan Love. A passionate and impatient agitator who helped put breast cancer on the federal health-care agenda and the author of two popular books on women's health, Love was, and still is, a widely admired publicity magnet. Her characteristically provocative quip that modern medicine's approach to breast cancer treatment amounted to "slash, burn and poison" made her a talk-show regular and the nation's best-known breast surgeon.

Temperamentally and philosophically, Chang occupies a separate universe. A woman so shy that her husband jokes she married him because he is big enough to hide behind, and so driven that she began her surgical residency 48 hours after giving birth, she abstains from the politics of disease. Until arriving at UCLA from Brown University last October, she had been a quiet crusader, confining her breast cancer fight to the research lab or the operating room. Even now, inhabiting an office with a built-in bully pulpit, she defends the strides that have been made in treating breast cancer rather than flag any deficiencies.

This preference for science over celebrity put Chang on the short list to lead UCLA's clinical war on breast cancer in the post-Love era. During her four years as the breast center's founding director, Love clashed with some doctor colleagues who resented her contrary style--men in particular felt her barbs--and the time she spent away from the Westwood campus playing on a bigger stage. Love resigned and stopped seeing patients in May 1996, citing a desire to devote all her time to national women's-health issues.

Her exit left UCLA with a huge vacuum to fill. The number of breast center patients dropped as much as 40% after her departure and has yet to rebound fully, in part because the 1990 bestseller "Dr. Susan Love's Breast Book" pulled in so much business. Though Love attributes her departure to mid-career angst, her supporters outside UCLA suspect that petty jealousies pushed her out. That perception gained credence last year with the publication of "To Dance With the Devil," an account of the modern breast cancer movement by L.A. journalist Karen Stabiner that chronicles Love's squabbles with her bosses.

Besides lending an air of calm, Chang is expected to help a renowned research institution strengthen its reputation as a premier provider of cancer diagnosis, consultation, treatment--and breakthroughs. Breast cancer, in particular, is big business and good politics. The center Chang runs is not only a place to treat patients but also a giant petri dish for testing medical advances.

"If you are going to have any kind of presence in cancer, based on numbers, breast cancer is going to be one of the areas where you will want to have major expertise," says Dr. Dennis Slamon, chief of hematology-oncology at UCLA's Department of Medicine. Federal research funding for the disease, which will strike about 171,000 women this year, has more than tripled since the turn of the decade. And the demand for clinical services will spiral upward as baby boomers confront a cancer that favors women over 50. Locally, UCLA has keen rivals in the contest for patients at Long Beach Memorial Medical Center and St. John's Health Center in Santa Monica; a recent Self magazine poll of health-care professionals ranked those hospitals, but not UCLA, among the nation's top 10 for patient care.

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