Last night I went to another reading and book signing at Barnes & Noble featuring David Servan-Schreiber MD PhD, who wrote the book, Anticancer: A New Way of Life. In the book, the author describes his personal experience as a doctor and cancer survivor. He was a working neuroscientist in his early 30s, studying functional MRI of the brain, which was at that time a new technology for determining which parts of the brain are activated while performing certain tasks. One night, he and his research partners were doing brain scans on students who had agreed to be subjects, and one of the students didn’t show up– so he went into the scanner instead. After a few preliminary pictures, his colleagues stopped the scanner and told him there was something in his brain. That’s how he found out he had a brain tumor.
The book is both the story of the author’s personal journey with brain cancer (which was treated, recurred, and was treated again) and his search through published literature and discussions with experts regarding approaches that an individual can take, in conjunction with conventional treatment, to get the best possible outcome after a diagnosis of cancer. He presents an evidence-based assessment of cancer prevention and risk reduction strategies, including discussion of nutrition, physical activity, and the mind-body connection. The author argues that traditional approaches to cancer treatment focus on killing the cancer; he is suggesting that we should also strive to strengthen our body’s natural defenses against cancer, or our own natural “terrain.” He also gives tips from his own personal experience on fear, telling your loved ones you have cancer, and other survivorship issues.
He was a passionate speaker. He made sure to emphasize that the approaches he was discussing are not a magic bullet and can’t be guaranteed to prevent or cure cancer, or even to improve outcomes. He also stated firmly that these approaches, if used, should supplement, rather than replace, conventional treatments. And he made the eminently reasonable point that even if one is engaging in conventional cancer treatments, it makes sense to do whatever is possible to maximize the odds of success.
I think that even if things like diet, exercise, and meditation don’t have any impact on the natural history of a specific cancer, they may improve quality of our lives both by empowering us and by helping us feel better, physically, emotionally, and spiritually. He spoke about the issue of “false hope,” and how he does not want to give people false hope. On the other hand, he stated, the belief that an individual is powerless to improve the situation is also false: he calls it “false hopelessness.” It is false hopelessness that he is trying to combat in his book.
In the book, David Servan-Schreiber talked about how having cancer changed his priorities. He had been a scientist, on the fast track, concerned with many of the trappings of success in his career; when he had cancer, he stopped and reconsidered his priorities. During the question and answer period at the end, I asked him if he has been able to maintain his shifted priorities, since it’s now been about 15 years since his initial diagnosis. He said that one thing that has remained constant since his diagnosis is his desire to focus his energy on things that have meaning for him. Sounds like a prescription for a good life.