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 becoming an aggressive disease. These defenses include our immune system; the bodily functions that control inflammation; 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: by killing enemy cells. They do not help prevent the disease, and they do not help keep it from coming back.
For prevention or better disease management, it is important to change the environment—the "terrain"—that surrounds cancer cells. Research suggests that cancer grows much faster under three circumstances:
- When our immune system is weakened and less capable of detecting and destroying budding tumors;
- When low-grade chronic inflammation in our body supports the invasion of neighboring tissue;
- When tumors are allowed to develop new blood vessels to feed growth.
When we strengthen our immune system, reduce inflammation, and reduce the growth of new blood vessels, we help create an anticancer terrain. And, increasingly, research demonstrates the lifesaving results. At Ohio State University, for example, a team followed women with breast cancer who all had surgery and conventional treatment. Some participated in an education group focused on better nutrition, more exercise, and simple stress reducers such as "progressive relaxation," in which participants lie down and consciously loosen their muscles. Those who learned to change their lifestyle were half as likely to die from their cancer during the 11-year study as those who did not. This research shows that lifestyle choices can transform the body's ability to resist cancer.
So what are these cancer-fighting behaviors? Some you already know are good for you, such as exercise. But others are surprisingly simple habits that could make all the difference for you—as I believe they have for me.
Sweet Surrender. Sugar fuels cancer growth and triggers inflammation. Avoid refined sugar wherever it lurks, including sodas and ketchup. Also avoid white flour, which quickly turns into sugar in the body.
Mighty Meals. Adding known cancer fighters such as the spice turmeric to your diet will go a long way toward building up your body's defenses. See "Fierce Foods," right, for proven anticancer fare.
Wellness Walk. Regular physical activity has been shown to improve survival rates for many types of cancer. Just walking briskly for 30 minutes, six times a week, dramatically reduces the chances of a relapse after breast cancer treatment, for example.
Now and Zen. Stress causes inflammation and weakens your immune system, two disadvantages in the fight against cancer. Though we can't avoid stress in our lives, we can learn to respond to it differently and reduce our level of stress hormones. Practices such as yoga, qigong, and mindfulness meditation can transform our response to stress and strengthen our resistance to disease.
Clean Sweep. Though they can't be avoided completely, common household toxins should be minimized. Substances that can impair your body's cancer-fighting system include certain preservatives in cosmetics (called parabens and phthalates); Teflon released from scratched pans; percholorethylene used in standard dry cleaning; gases given off by new polyvinyl chloride objects such as those used in plumbing pipes; and bisphenol A from water heated in hard plastics.
As a physician who has now been living with cancer for 16 years, I've discovered we can all make our bodies tougher targets for cancer through the choices we make in our lives. Indeed, as strange as it may seem, I'm in better health and happier today than before I became ill. I feel more at peace, lighter, with more energy, drive, and passion for life.
Most people who start on this health journey notice a difference within a few weeks. Recent studies suggest that healthy habits start improving mood and well-being after two to four months, and can have an impact on cancer statistics within a year or two. What I've learned in my own journey is that the best way to go on living is to nourish life at all levels of my being: through my meals, through my walks in nature, through the purpose in my work, through the flow of love in my relationships, and through the protection of our environment. Science told me that this slows down cancer, and, perhaps even more important, it brings to my life, every day, a new light and a new meaning.
David Servan-Schreiber, M.D., Ph.D., is clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. This story is adapted from Anticancer: A New Way of Life. Copyright Éditions Robert Laffont, S.A. Paris, 2007; translation copyright David Servan-Schreiber, 2008. Printed by arrangement with Viking, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.