A Conversation With David Servan-Schreiber
Q: What have you
learned from having cancer?
A: When I was first diagnosed, I was immediately reminded of my own mortality. Clearly, I had seen several of my patients die, was seeing this happen every week in the hospital, but it was as if it didn’t apply to me… At 31 years of age, as a young and ambitious neuroscientist, it was not part of my horizon. Learning I had a brain tumor changed that quickly. And the surprise for me was that it gave life a much greater intensity, flavor, and I would even say beauty. As if I could see for the first time that life was precious.
I learned that my choices, every day, could give meaning to my life, or detract from it. And that this meaning would be the only thing that would survive after me, so I should start to pay attention to it right away. Not wait until some indefinite milestone in the future -- until I’d become a professor, until I had children, or any other such distant goal. I learned to live more meaningfully more purposefully.
And then, when I started learning about how to improve my own biology with a healthier lifestyle, I learned that I could feel a lot healthier with cancer in my body, than before I was ever diagnosed with the illness.
Q: How did you as a doctor experience the shift to become a patient? How has this change in perspective influenced your relationship with your own patients?
A: Before my diagnosis, I was so focused on research that I could not let myself enjoy my work as doctor. I saw it as detracting from the time I could spend in the lab, or from writing research papers. After I went through surgery and treatment for cancer, after the suffering, my perspective changed completely. I knew then, in my flesh, how professionalism combined with the slightest gesture of kindness – picking up a jacket that fell off a chair, walking someone back to the door with a smile – made such an important difference for a patient who is in pain and who is scared of what is happening to them. Because I now knew this, I started to get great pleasure from being able to make this gift to my patients. And I noticed how practicing medicine could be – as my grand-mother had always told me – “the most gratifying work in the world…” Soon after I discovered this, I progressively withdrew from my work in research, turned the direction of my lab to some of my friends and colleagues, and dedicated myself to practicing and teaching clinical care.
Q: In your book, you write that what can be confusing is the great diversity of information you receive as a patient. Your book contains a wealth of information, too. What do you recommend people who have been diagnosed with cancer? How can they find orientation among the plethora of possible methods of treatment?__
A: With respect to conventional treatment, I think every patient should have at least two different opinions from two different oncologists. Every doctor I know who has cancer seeks at least two different opinions, more often three or four. It’s normal to explore what are all the options available because there are so many.
Then, I think everyone should know that 1) conventional treatment is indispensable and has the best chance to save your life, but that 2) it is often not enough and that it is also extremely important to help your natural defenses do their work against cancer, to work on your “terrain”.
Conventional medicine generally fails to give enough information about everything we know about strengthening natural defenses, because it focuses on destroying cancer cells and it does not work much with this dimension of “terrain”.
This is why I wrote ANTICANCER. I collected in it all the stories – personal and scientific – that I wish I had read so as to possibly avoid ever getting cancer, and also that I wish I could have had with me on bed-side table when I went through the experience myself. (In fact, I have to say that I read passages again when I go through difficult times!)
Q: During your recuperation process, you tried a great number of different and sometimes divergent methods of treatment. Is this necessary in order to heal such a complex disease as cancer?
A: All scientists who have studied cancer agree that cancer is the result of many different processes going awry and that it has multiple causes. We all have cancer cells in our body, even when we’re apparently quite healthy. I believe cancer is what happens when the factors that feed cancer growth begin to outnumber the factors that support our natural defenses. If we have cancer, we should then try to reduce as many of the cancer promoters in our lives as possible (tobacco, excessive alcohol, excessive sugar, excessive omega-6 and hydrogenated fats, environmental pollutants), and increase everything that supports our defenses (cancer fighting phytochemicals from specific vegetables, fruits, spices, aromatic herbs, teas, etc., physical activity, stress management techniques that move us out of helplessness and despair, connectedness with our loved ones).
New studies are showing us that people who do this change the expression of the genes in their cells in a way that limits cancer growth in the tissue affected. There is enough science now to conclude that if we combine a sufficient number of changes in our lifestyle we can start to build an anticancer biology. This cannot replace conventional treatments, but it can help us get the most from them.
Q: Is there something like a “message” in your book, something you want to give people with cancer to take along on their journey?
A: Absolutely. The message is very simple. Everyone with cancer is told to be wary about false hopes. This is important, because we don’t want people to think they can avoid conventional treatments and their side-effects. However, I think it is just as important to not fall into false hopelessness! All patients with cancer should know that there are many things they can do to help themselves do better than the stark statistics they’re often given. We can all learn to create an anticancer biology in our body. There is no guarantee that it will stop cancer, but it will often slow it down. And nobody I know ever regretted trying.