David Servan-Schreiber, author of Anticancer: A New Way of Life, on diet, exercise and taking life seriously.
Ode Editors | November 2008 issue
What dietary choices do you recommend to help prevent cancer?
“Instead of eating a plate of animal protein with a few vegetables, do it the other way: Eat a plate of vegetables with perhaps a bit of animal protein on the side. Now, some foods are cancer-promoters, and these are the most abundant foods in our Western diet. Sixty percent of our diets are made of refined flour, sugar and vegetable oil, and these don’t add anything to our intake of minerals, vitamins, essential nutrients or omega-3s. We need to cut down on the foods that promote cancer growth and add more cancer-fighting chemicals that come in vegetables like garlic, onions, leeks, cabbage and broccoli, or in the herbs of a Mediterranean diet like rosemary, oregano, mint and basil. Furthermore, soy, green tea, the spice turmeric and red wine are all important as well.”
What about exercise?
“To have a real impact on the prevention of cancer you should do 30 minutes of physical activity six times a week—even if it’s just a walk. Women who do this after a diagnosis of breast cancer reduce the likelihood of a relapse by 5 percent.”
You claim people can prevent and fight cancer. Are you saying it’s your fault if you have cancer?
“I had cancer and I never felt for one second that it was my fault. After all, I had no idea about any of these things, because no one ever told me. More importantly, I’m not saying we can prevent cancer, because we may get cancer for reasons that are beyond our control. Even if you do all of the things I talk about in my book, there’s not a guarantee that you’ll prevent cancer. It’s about 80 to 85 percent protection, which is still enormous.”
Still, for some it will be difficult to make these lifestyle changes.
“If you decide your life is more interesting and more worth living by not changing your diet and exercise habits, it is your choice.”
Then it’s your choice to have a higher risk of cancer?
“Listen, this is not a matter of guilt. My job as a doctor is to tell people what they can do to help themselves. That’s what doctors do for heart disease all the time. When it comes to cancer, however, we worry we might give people false hope. I agree with these concerns from the viewpoint of the medical profession, but as it is now we’re basically giving people false hopelessness. If we don’t tell them what they can do to protect themselves and help their treatment, we’re promoting the hopelessness that comes with the idea that cancer is just something you can’t do anything about. I believe it’s irrational and extraordinarily damaging to tell a cancer patient he’s a sitting duck. Moving patients out of that hopelessness is crucial.”
Chemotherapy, surgery and radiation are the standard treatments for cancer. How do you look at the criticism these treatments have been getting from supporters of alternative cancer treatments?
“Well, surgery and chemotherapy saved my life and I think there’s no alternative to these treatments that can claim the same effectiveness. The only thing is that as much as these treatments are essential, they’re not enough. I think that with current scientific knowledge, it isn’t acceptable to leave the treatment at that and not do more.”
Are we losing the war on cancer?
“Yes, I’m afraid we are. And I believe it’s even more worrisome than that, because we’re not fighting the cause of cancer. When I worked as a physician with Doctors Without Borders, I saw cholera epidemics. We know how to cure every single case of cholera, but that will not stop cholera from spreading. The only way to stop a cholera epidemic is to stop the cause, which is the contamination of the water supply. I believe today we’re living through a cancer epidemic, and we don’t do anything to treat the cause. We’re putting nearly all our resources for cancer research in early detection and treatment, while that’s exactly what doesn’t work to fight cholera. I’m sure that if we’d had antibiotics in the 1800s with the cholera epidemics, we would’ve lost the war on cholera. We should not only be fighting the disease, but also the cause.”
Why is there so little attention on fighting the cause?
“There’s no money to be made from prevention.”
But there’s a growing sector of companies selling supplements and promoting exercise.
“That’s a drop in the bucket. In 2003, Lipitor, a pill designed to lower cholesterol, was bringing in $1 million per hour. Meanwhile, omega-3 supplements as a whole might bring in $50 million a year. Compared to a $7 billion industry for a single pharmaceutical, this ‘growing sector’ doesn’t really count.”
So it’s all up to us?
“The government is the only player with an economic interest in fighting the causes of cancer. After all, it’s the government—which is us, the people—that ends up paying for this through health care. But sadly, politicians don’t have a long-term view. They don’t care that we don’t invest in preventing cancer 30 years from now, because there’s nothing to gain for them in the next election round. If 30 years ago we’d chosen to spend most of the money for cancer research in preventing the disease, we could have won the war on cancer by now.”
What’s the most important thing a person can do to prevent or fight cancer?
“That’s a very tough question. I think most important is to take a little bit of time every day—maybe just five minutes—with yourself to listen to the life force in yourself, pay attention to it, nurture it and express your gratitude to it.”
Taking five minutes a day doesn’t sound difficult.
“Yet, it is. Taking your life seriously is difficult, because we’re not trained to express love for ourselves. But if you can’t take just five minutes for yourself, I doubt you will be capable of changing your diet or changing your exercise pattern, because you’re not going to feel you’re worth it. Connecting to the life force inside you will help you face challenges and treat yourself better. Expressing this radical act of love is the step that leads to all other steps.”