Book Review of Anticancer: A New Way of Life, by David Servan-Schreiber

By Tina Koral, 10/22/08

I’m a breast cancer survivor of over five years. To be honest, in those five years, I have not significantly changed my lifestyle in an effort to reduce my risk of cancer returning. I’ve switched to organic dairy products, but other than that, my diet and level of physical activity have remained unaltered since my diagnosis in 2003. 

It was on Thanksgiving Day that I had that revelation. I was watching my 16-month-old daughter Averie gleefully bang away on the keys of my grandmother’s piano when I realized, I have not significantly changed my lifestyle in an effort to reduce my risk of cancer returning. Now, I don’t pig out on junk food (regularly), and I would not describe my lifestyle as sedentary. But I got cancer for a reason, and it’s not because I had the BRCA gene. I realized I needed to change my lifestyle if I wanted to keep cancer at bay and be around to see Averie grow up.

A friend had recommended Anticancer: A New Way of Life (ISBN: 9780670020348) by David Servan-Schreiber, MD, PhD months ago, claiming that it had completely changed her understanding of cancer and the way she lived her life, so I decided to pick it up.

“Cancer lies dormant in all of us. Like all living organisms, our bodies are making defective cells all the time. That’s how tumors are born. But our bodies are also equipped with a number of mechanisms that detect and keep such cells in check. In the West, one person out of four will die of cancer, but three of four will not. Their defense mechanisms will hold out, and they will die of other causes.”

And so begins the most interesting, thought-provoking, and applicable book about cancer that I have ever read. Servan-Schreiber is a physician and brain cancer survivor of over 15 years. At the time of his diagnosis, was a researcher working on his PhD in neuroscience. Frustrated by his oncologist’s reluctance to discuss any kind of lifestyle changes he should take to prevent a relapse, he began months of study on how to help his own body protect itself from cancer. He clearly opines that there currently are no alternative therapies that will cure cancer, and that it is unreasonable to try to cure cancer without the conventional treatments including chemotherapy, radiation, surgery, and hormonal therapies. At the same time, he believes it is also unreasonable to rely only on these conventional treatments and deny the natural ability of our own bodies to defend against cancer. 

The book begins with an explanation of the circumstances necessary for cancer growth: inadequate immune response to cancer cells, inflammation, and the proliferation of blood vessels to the tumor itself. Servan-Schreiber takes these complicated biological processes, and explains them in a way that is easily understood. This description of the principles of cancer growth lays the groundwork for the rest of the book. 

The remainder of the book outlines the four approaches that the author believes anyone can use to create a bodily environment which is inhospitable to cancer:

  1. Rid our bodies of environmental toxins;
  2. Exercise regularly to inhibit inflammation and boost immunity; 
  3. Strive for a psychological peace; and
  4. Modify our diet to reduce the intake of foods that promote cancer growth, and increase our intake of foods that actively fight cancer.

Now, the first three I have no problem with. I am all about living greener, exercising, and searching for emotional harmony. But talk about changing my diet, and that’s where I get discouraged. I’ve tried to diet in the past, and the results are always the same. I do well for about four days, then I throw up my hands when I don’t see a change on the scale and run for the chocolate chip cookie dough ice cream. But this diet modification is not for weight loss (although a weight reduction would be likely following the changes Servan-Schreiber suggests), it is about food as medicine. 

The author recommends increasing dietary intake of green tea, turmeric, mushrooms, berries, and certain herbs, and explains how the phytochemicals in each food fights cancer cell proliferation. The avoidance of corn or soy-fed beef and chicken, foods including refined sugar, margarine, and nonorganic dairy are among the foods listed as cancer promoters. I found these anticancer diet modifications to be completely doable, even by someone as resistant to the word “diet” as I am.

Anticancer is not a biology book, but one that puts the science of cancer into easily understandable concepts. It’s a guidebook for those who wish to take an active role in preventing cancer in conjunction with conventional therapies. And it’s a good read, not only for survivors, but also for those trying to avoid what I think are the three scariest words in the English language: “You have cancer.”