Health tips of a doctor who beat cancer

By Jan Shure, August 14, 2008

After surviving a brain tumour, David Servan-Schreiber has written a best-selling book on staying cancer-free

David Servan-Schreiber has one regret about his best-selling book, Anticancer: A New Way of Life, a guide to reducing the risk of getting cancer through diet, exercise, and spiritual and mental factors.

He wishes that the spotlight had not fallen on broccoli.

"I wrote it hoping it would be highly readable and would tell a very human story," recalls the eminent French-born psychiatrist and academic. "But all the articles and reviews focus on broccoli. It isn't about broccoli - or about jogging. To me, it is much more a spiritual exercise connected with life."

Dr Servan-Schreiber's book was first published in France four years ago and in the UK this summer. He wrote it after being diagnosed with a brain tumour. After conventional treatment, it went into remission, but after a relapse he decided to learn everything he could to help his body defend itself.

This was not easy, despite his medical background: he is clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Centre and co-founder of the university's Centre for Integrative Medicine.

"After surgery and chemotherapy, I asked my oncologist for advice about what I should do to lead a healthy life, and what precautions I could take to avoid a relapse," he says.

The response was disappointing. "He told me: ‘Lead your life normally, we'll do CAT scans at regular intervals and if your tumour comes back, we'll detect it early.'"

It seemed that no-one - not medics, nutritionists, exercise gurus, environmentalists nor psychologists - had pulled all the strands together to make a cohesive plan for avoiding cancer.

With an international best-seller, Healing Without Freud or Prozac, already under his belt, Servan-Schreiber decided to create one. He undertook months of research, attending - and participating in - conferences in the USA and in Europe, scouring medical databases, combing scientific publications and speaking to physicians and practitioners working in the field of cancer-prevention.

"Being a physician and a scientist did not protect me from cancer, but it did allow me to go deep into research to get answers which I have used in the book. I wish I had read this book when I was diagnosed - I wish I had read it before," he says, laughing wryly, "to protect myself. That was the spirit in which I wrote it - to protect."

The result is 265 pages (plus a handy pull-out pocket guide) of paranoia-inducing information claiming to help you reduce the chances of getting cancer. The paranoia part is probably not what the gently spoken Servan-Schreiber was aiming for.

He prefers to think of it as "a recipe for a good life. It is the best recipe to nourish life in every way. If you want to live a fulfilling life, a health-promoting diet is absolutely essential, as is some level of activity and managing your emotions so as to deal with the unavoidable stresses of life more graciously.

"If you begin to respect the life inside you, you can't pour into your body burgers and fries and Coke, you just can't do it. There is a sense of the preciousness of life. From that also stems the need to exercise - your body wants to walk and breathe clean air, to swim. If you start to listen to your body, all kinds of things happen."

At the point when, aged 31, he was diagnosed, he was recently divorced but enjoying the kind of high-flying career expected of one of the four sons of Jean-Jacques Servan-Schreiber, the prominent left-wing politician, publisher, author and editor of French daily newspaper L'Express.

David Servan-Schreiber sometimes goes to synagogue on the anniversary of that diagnosis, viewing it as part of the process of nurturing his spiritual side. He is a frequent visitor to Israel, but has some critical things to say about Israeli, and Jewish, cuisine. He describes a Sephardi diet as "healthier than the traditional Ashkenazi diet, but still not so good because there is a lot of fried food".

Along with fried foods and sugar, one of the book's other targets is margarine, which he describes unequivocally as "a lot more dangerous than butter" for its role in cardio-vascular disease and obesity. He refers to the "Israeli paradox", in which Israelis have among the lowest cholesterol levels in Western countries, "combined with one of the highest rates of cardiac infarction and obesity". The cause, he explains, is the kashrut imperative to separate milk and meat, which has led to the use of margarines as a substitute for butter.

Margarine has high levels of hydrogenated fats which in turn are high in omega-6 fatty acids, the real baddie in the battle against heart disease.

Contentedly remarried, with a 10-year-old son, he is an enthusiast about his anti-cancer regime, rather than a zealot, preferring to "set an example" rather than nag people to adopt a different way of life.

"You can do it by example. When you meet people who lead a very healthy lifestyle, there is something very attractive about it."

He says that his strict adherence to his anti-cancer principles has had a profoundly beneficial effect. "The most striking thing is that I am in much better health - I feel much better."

Anticancer: A New Way of Life is published by Penguin at £14.99


Dr Servan-Schreiber's disease-busting diet tips

Stick to foods with powerful anti-cancer properties, such as organically grown cereals and vegetables, and fish (all rich in selenium); spinach, nuts, hazelnuts, almonds, wholegrain cereals and some mineral waters (all containing magnesium); citrus fruits, green vegetables, cabbage and strawberries (rich in vitamin C); and bright-coloured fruits and vegetables, as well as eggs (all have high levels of vitamin A).

Go Asian: green tea, a favourite in the Far East, contains molecules which act against the formation of new blood vessels by cancerous cells. The tea also acts as a detoxifier, eliminating cancerous toxins. Mixed with other foods commonly found in Asian diets such as soy, it is even more protective, particularly against prostate and breast cancer. Soy also contains agents that counteract the spread of cancer. Shiitake, maitake, kawaratake and enokitake mushrooms are staple foods in Japan and are given to chemotherapy patients to stimulate the immune system.

Use herbs and spices: turmeric is known to inhibit the growth of cancers and forces cancer cells to die. Herbs like mint, thyme, marjoram, oregano, basil and rosemary are part of the terpene family and have been shown to reduce the spread of cancer cells. Apigenine, in parsley and celery, inhibits harmful blood vessels which tumours need to grow.

Reduce your consumption of red meat. Research shows that the risk of breast cancer in pre-menopausal women is twice as high in those who eat red meat more than once a day, as it is in those who consume it less than three times a week. Another study reached the same conclusion for colon cancer. This could be to do with the contaminants contained within the fat in the meat, but it could also be to do with the carcinogenic substances stored in cold cuts. The other explanation could be that big meat-eaters consume less anti-cancer foods.

Avoid fruit and vegetables that have been sprayed with pesticides. Pesticides and fungicides can increase the risk of brain tumours.

Last updated: 2:52pm, August 22 2008