Cancer and how to avoid it

| 29th May 2009
Fruit and vegetables
We all carry cancer cells, but we also possess natural defences. Laura Sevier meets Dr David Servan-Schreiber, author of 'Anticancer: A new way of life' to find out more

How did you come to write the book?

Fifteen years ago I was diagnosed with a brain tumour. I thought I had beaten the cancer until eight years ago, when I had a relapse. After two successful operations and 13 bouts of chemotherapy, I asked my doctor what I could do to prevent another relapse. I was astounded to be told, ‘Nothing – we’ll just watch you closely’. I felt pretty helpless. As a scientist myself – I’m a clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine in the US – I began to trawl through scientific reports. I discovered there is lots you can do. My book is an accumulation of many proven studies that pinpoint the foods and lifestyle changes that help combat cancer.

What causes cancer?

It’s very simple: cancer is just the expression of an imbalance between all of the factors that feed cancer cells. We all have cancer cells. So you get cancer when there are more factors that promote cancer growth than factors that inhibit cancer growth. It’s that simple. In the past 50 or 60 years we’ve been piling up the number of factors that promote cancer growth – such as cigarettes, sugar, trans fats and chemicals in our environment - and have been damaging the natural defences that we have to inhibit cancer growth. For instance, our grandparents used to walk to school. Do you know any kids now who walk more than five minutes to go to school? A few, but they’re very rare. Physical activity boosts all of the defence mechanisms against cancer. We’ve weakened that.

Would you describe it as a tipping point?

That’s right: it’s a tipping-point theory of cancer, and everybody believes that – it’s not just me. Any single thing, by itself, doesn’t do it, but when you start accumulating risk factors you get cancer.

How do cancer cells behave?

Cancer cells do not behave like normal cells. They refuse to die after a certain number of divisions and they poison the tissues around them with chemical substances, creating infl ammation, which they need to sustain their growth.

The pharmaceutical industry is looking for drugs that will inhibit the chemicals secreted by cancer cells that cause inflammation, but there are a number of natural ways in which we are able to boost our immunity and reduce inflammation to keep those cancer cells in check. This is not meant to replace conventional medicine, but there are promoters and anti-promoters of cancer growth. It’s a balance game. [See ‘The anticancer lifestyle’ below]

What does an anticancer plate of food look like?

The opposite of a regular western plate of food, which typically has a large slice of meat in the middle with a few vegetables on the side. The anticancer diet is principally composed of vegetables and legumes, accompanied by olive oil – or canola or flaxseed oil – or organic butter, garlic, herbs ands spices. Meat and eggs are optional; they don’t represent the main ingredient on the plate. Our ratio of meat to vegetables must change dramatically. [See ‘Anti-cancer foods’]

I was in a fancy French restaurant in Paris three or so months ago. I looked at the children’s menu and it was scary. It was hamburger, French fries and ketchup with a vanilla ice cream for dessert. You cannot make a more pro-cancer menu than that.

Are we winning the ‘war on cancer’?

It’s clear the war on cancer has been a complete failure. Ninety-seven per cent of cancer research funds are invested in developing new treatments and early detection of cancer. Three per cent are invested in prevention. If you ask any practising oncologist they’ll tell you they’re completely overwhelmed. They have so many patients they don’t know what to do. Oncologists are very well-meaning people – they want more money to do their job better; to have better drugs and detection – but it’s all about treatment. We do nothing to stop the cause.

Cancer has been increasing in the West since 1940. Three major factors have drastically disrupted our environment over the same period: the addition of large quantities of highly refined sugar to our diet (cancer feeds on sugar, insulin-production triggers inflammation); changes in farming methods, and exposure to a large number of chemical products that didn’t exist before the second world war. There is every reason to believe that these three phenomena play a major role in the spread of cancer.

If you stop what creates the cancer epidemic and make the changes necessary you’d get the benefits in 30 to 40 years. None of those politicians who were making those decisions (which would be costly, unpopular and pushed against by every single lobby) would be up for re-election then. And that’s the main reason why we’re going to be dealing with the cancer epidemic for a very long time.

As an attitude, do you think it’s helpful to think of it as a ‘war on cancer’?

No. I think the key is not about fighting, it’s about learning to feed life. What I try to convey in the book is that it’s all about bringing your consciousness to feed life in you. And if you feed life in you with what you eat (and don’t eat), with how you treat your body, with experiencing life through meditation, pauses in your existence, through your relationships, then the body takes care of itself and it will help fight cancer. You don’t have to have a fighting mentality. You have to have a caring mentality.

All of conventional medicine is organised around this idea of fighting the tumour. I’m not against that – I had a tumour and I was very happy there was a surgeon there to take it out, and I took chemotherapy to kill the cancer cells – it’s just that it’s only one aspect. It’s incomplete and it’s not enough.

Do you think the rate is set to increase?

At present one in three in the UK or US will die of cancer. The level of death from cancer has levelled because we have better treatments, but the number of cases of cancer has gone up. So we have more and more people crippled by cancer who don’t die right away from the disease. Cancer drugs are now the number one profit-making drug category in the pharmaceutical industry. If you’re training to be an oncologist, most of the training is now based on drugs. They learn almost nothing about how you can work with the terrain – the body’s natural defences that fight disease.

Are there many other doctors who are starting to think in the same way as you?

More and more. It’s just so obvious. Everybody else knows that your food, exercise and mental outlook is going to make a difference in terms of your resistance to disease. You have to go through 10 years of training in medical school to have this wiped out of your brain!

How has the medical establishment reacted to your book?

Mostly it’s been very favourable, partly because I was fortunate in that the World Research Fund for Cancer published a huge report in September 2007, with very similar conclusions to mine. It said that cancer is not genetic – which is what I say. There are some cases where it’s a genetic cause of cancer, but they’re rare; for breast cancer it’s five per cent at most, so 95 per cent of them are not genetic. Why do we spend so much time worrying about the genes? I don’t know.

In addition, in June 2008 the findings of a US pilot study was published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences showing something we all knew in my field – that your lifestyle affects which genes are expressed or not expressed.

So for the most part, physicians are becoming more and more aware that this is important. All of their patients are asking, ‘What should I eat? What should I do?’

They know they don’t have the answers as it wasn’t part of their medical training, so they’re quite happy that somebody took the time to correct all the scientific information on what it is reasonable to do. I’m not against conventional medicine, so this is a book that they can comfortably give to their patients who want help to prevent cancer or to help themselves.

Would you say there is such a thing as a cancer personality?

This is always controversial issue. I think there is. Why? Because of the role stress plays in cancer. We know the mechanisms through which stress can promote growth of an existing tumour, but it’s more the response to stress than the stress itself.

There is no question in my mind that responses of helplessness, powerlessness and abandonment are associated with higher levels of cortisol and higher levels of adrenalin, which impede the immune system and which feed inflammation in the body (key factors in the promotion of cancer). So helplessness feeds cancer
– not stress.

Another important factor that boosts our natural defences is social support from family and friends. We know that this is the main buffer against the negative biological effects of stress.

When you were diagnosed with cancer, did that put you in a helpless position?

Yes, absolutely. And this is why I wrote this book: to help people move out of helplessness. It gives them hope and it gives them something to do to regain their power. There are things that they can do. I think it’s essential to give people this kind of information.

Do people who try this diet and lifestyle report feeling healthier?

Of course – there is no question that this kind of diet and lifestyle is good for you overall. It helps with heart disease; it helps reduce arthritis; it helps prevent Alzheimer’s, so there’s no question about that. In my own case, I feel a lot healthier than when I had cancer – and I was 16 years younger when I was diagnosed with the disease.

Anticancer: A New Way of Life
by David Servan-Schreiber (Penguin, £14.99)



The 'Anticancer' Lifestyle


Anti-cancer foods

Green tea Rich in polyphenols that reduce the growth of the new blood vessels needed for tumour growth, green tea is also a powerful antioxidant and detoxifier (it activates mechanisms in the liver that eliminate toxins from the body) and it facilitates the death of cancer cells by apoptosis (cell death). Steep for at least five to eight minutes – ideally 10 minutes.

Turmeric The most powerful natural anti-inflammatory identified today. It helps stimulate apoptosis in cancer cells, enhances the effectiveness of chemotherapy and reduces tumour growth. To be assimilated by the body, mix it with black pepper and dissolve in oil.

Ginger root A powerful anti-inflammatory and antioxidant, it acts against certain cancer cells. Grate into a stir fry or for an infusion, cut into slices and steep in boiling water for 10 to 15 minutes.

Vegetables and fruits rich in cartenoids Carrots, yams, squash, sweet potatoes, pumpkin, tomatoes, apricots, beetroot and all the brightly coloured fruits and vegetables contain vitamin A and lycopene, which have the proven capacity to inhibit the growth of several particularly aggressive cancers.

Garlic , onions, leeks, shallots and chives These all promote apoptosis in colon, breast, lung and prostate cancer, as well in leukaemia. They help to regulate blood sugar levels, which in turn reduces insulin secretion and IGF (insulin-like growth factor) and thus the growth of cancer cells.

Cruciferous vegetables Cabbages, sprouts, broccoli and cauliflower contain powerful anti-cancer molecules. To avoid destroying them, steam briefly or stir-fry rapidly.

Mushrooms Shiitake, maitake, enoki, crimini, portobello and oyster mushrooms stimulate the reproduction and activity of immune cells. They are often used in Japan as a complement to chemotherapy to support the immune system.

Herbs and spices Rosemary, thyme, oregano, basil and mint are rich in essential oils of the terpene family, which reduce the spread of cancer cells by blocking the
enzymes they need to invade neighbouring tissues.

Foods rich in selenium Selenium is an oligoelement found in the soil. Cereals and vegetables grown organically also contain large quantities of selenium (intensive agriculture depletes farmland of its selenium content). A mineral that stimulates immune cells, selenium is also found in fish, shellfish, giblets and offal.

Berries Strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, blackberries and cranberries contain a large number of polyphenols. These chemicals stimulate the mechanisms that lead to the elimination of carcinogenic substances from the body.

Citrus fruits Oranges, tangerines, lemons and grapefruit contain antiinflammatory flavonoids. They also stimulate the detoxification of carcinogens in the liver.

Dark chocolate (more than 70 PER CENT cocoa) Contains a number of antioxidants and many polyphenols (a square contains almost as many as a cup of green tea properly steeped). These molecules slow the growth of cancer cells.

Environmental links

Intensive farming When cows eat grass, their meat and dairy products are perfectly balanced in omega-3 fatty acids (which help to reduce inflammation and cancer-cell growth) and omega-6s. Since the 1950s, however, pastures have been replaced by battery farming: corn, soy and wheat have become the animals’ principal diet. These food sources are rich in omega-6 fats and contain practically no omega-3s. Omega-6 fats and hormones given to stimulate milk-production can trigger the growth of fatty cells and inflammation.

The switch from grass to corn-soy combinations has also eliminated another anti-cancer benefit from dairy: conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), found primarily in cheese that comes from grass-fed animals, helps fight the growth of cancer cells.

Toxins in the environment In the past 30 years the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer has tested 900 chemicals in the environment and found only one to be categorically noncarcinogenic; 95 have been identified as ‘known carcinogens’, 307 are ‘possible’ and 497 remain ‘unclassified’. Many of these substances – such as benzene, which is found in petrol, certain plastics, glues, lubricants, dyes and detergents – continue to be widely used.

This article first appeared in the Ecologist June 2009




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