The Anticancer Lifestyle
A promising new strategy for avoiding a killer disease—or keeping it from coming back
BY DAVID SERVAN-SCHREIBER, M.D.
At age 31, I was an ambitious physician and neuroscience researcher who reveled in discovery and glittering science projects.
Then, slipping into a brain scanner one evening to take the place of
a study subject who hadn’t shown up, I was suddenly stripped of
my white-coat status and thrown into the gray world of patients.
The scan revealed a brain tumor that turned out to be cancer.
Being a physician didn’t protect me
from cancer, but it allowed me to dig
deeply into the medical literature in
search of ways to live longer than the
few years I was expected to survive.
The first thing I learned is that we all
carry cancer cells in us, even if only a
few. But we also have natural defenses
that usually prevent these cells from be-
coming an aggressive disease. These de-
fenses include our immune system; the
bodily functions that control inflamma-
tion; and foods that reduce the growth
of blood vessels needed by tumors.
More than one third of Americans
will develop detectable cancer. But
nearly two thirds will not; their natural defenses will have kept the disease
from taking hold. To survive my brain
cancer, I knew, I’d need to learn how to
strengthen my own protective systems.
In far too many Americans, these
defenses are breaking down. Cancer
rates increased steadily for decades before beginning a slight decline in recent
years. And cancers that have no screening test—lymphomas, and pancreatic
and testicular cancers, for example—
are still rising. While the aging of the
population plays a role, it is not the sole
cause: cancer in children and adolescents rose at a rate of 1 to 1. 5 percent per
year during the 30 years ending in 1999.
Asian countries have not experienced
the same trends. Yet within one or two
generations, Asian Americans get some
cancers at rates similar to those of Caucasian Americans.
This tells us we don’t get cancer by
genetic lottery alone. A study in The New
England Journal of Medicine conducted
by the University of Copenhagen found
that people who were adopted at birth
had the cancer risk of their adoptive
parents rather than that of their biological parents. At most, genetic factors
contribute 15 percent to our cancer risk.
What determines the other 85 percent
of our risk is what we do—or do not do
enough of—with our lives.
When it comes to surviving cancer
once it is diagnosed, there are no proven
substitutes for conventional treatments:
surgery, chemotherapy, radiotherapy,
immunotherapy, or, soon, molecular
genetics. But these treatments target
the tumor much as an army wages war: