A New Way of Life
David Servan-Schreiber (d. 2011)
David Servan-Schreiber sensed something wasn’t quite right a year after his thirtieth birthday. A professor of psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh Medical School, he felt his brain didn’t work. Eventually he was diagnosed with a cancerous brain tumor. This type of cancer is rare with a poor prognosis. People often survive less than a year, even after aggressive treatment. Being a medic he asked what he could do to fight the disease. This was in 1992. He drew a blank. Oncologists did not think there was anything to do beyond radiotherapy.
Professor Servan-Schreiber was far from alone in having cancer. The disease is on the march. Over the next two decades its prevalence is expected to increase by 70%. At the moment the statistics are already quite worrying. In Canada 30% of all deaths are due to cancer. Two out of every five Canadians will have cancer, with one quarter of all Canadians dying from the disease. The statistics for the United States are similar. At some point it will touch all of us. These figures mean that Canada has the seventh highest rates of Cancer in the world, while the United States is in ninth place. This increase is recent. In the 1950s doctors would beckon their colleagues when they saw a lady in her thirties with breast cancer, as its incidence at that young age was rare. Now it is not.
Professor Severn-Schreiber was dissatisfied that there was no explanation for this dramatic rise in cancer. He was dissatisfied that oncologists could not offer anything more than radiation and little in the way of prevention. He then did what most researchers do when faced with a conundrum: he spent the next twenty years pounding the medical literature, then travelling and interviewing other researchers at the cutting edge of cancer prevention. As the length of this journey indicates he survived much longer than his one-year prognosis.
There is a thread running through several major diseases and that thread is inflammation. It is present in heart disease, in Alzheimer’s disease, and in cancer. Once this is understood it makes it possible to see that all of these diseases could be prevented by the same lifestyle interventions. Cancer cells need inflammation to sustain their growth and spread. They produce inflammatory cytokines and prostaglandins that promote cell reproduction and allow tumors to grow. These inflammatory chemicals disarm natural killer cells and white blood cells, preventing them from fighting a fledgling tumor. Therefore, a successful cancer provokes and feeds off inflammation. It is at this point the tumor is extremely difficult to deal with.
In 1943 Marshal Zhukov faced a dominant Nazi army at Stalingrad. The Nazi menace was too large to fight. Instead, Zhukov directed his troops around the oncoming Nazi threat, sending them to fight ill-equipped Italian forces at the rear. He cut off the Nazi supply lines. Oncologists are now discovering that fighting a tumor is a little like fighting at Stalingrad. If the tumor is established, then the best course of action is to take out the supply lines rather than the tumor. In such a case the supply lines are the blood vessels that supply the tumor with the nutrients it needs to grow. Once a tumor gets hold it has the ability to grow its own blood vessels, effectively growing its own supply lines. It first uses inflammation to disarm protective cells, then sprouts blood vessels to grow and spread.
To counter this development and spread of cancer the two most important steps a person must take are to keep the body free from inflammation and to stop the new formation of blood vessels. Doing so will not only help prevent cancer, it will also protect against a whole host of age-related illnesses. There is no sense of conflicting advice here. You do not need to follow significantly different diets to prevent different illnesses. But in order to get a sense of how to reduce inflammation we need to return again to the time of Stalingrad.
It was in the 1940s that large amounts of sugar were introduced into the Western diet. It is estimated that the men of the European Renaissance, who produced masterpieces of art and of the intellect, did so on about two teaspoons of sugar per year. Their brains did not need sugar to function. In fact our genes were formed of an environment of around 4 lb of sugar per year. Today, the average American consumes 170 lb of sugar per year—a whole person of sugar. Canadians eat between 88–138 lb of sugar per year, with 20% of Canadian calories coming from sugar.
Also at around the same time of Stalingrad, Otto Heinrich Warburg won the Nobel Prize in Physiology for showing that tumors depend upon glucose. When sugar, white flour, or refined carbohydrates are eaten our blood glucose rises quickly, stimulating the release of insulin that helps glucose to enter cells. This is accompanied by a rise in the protein IgF (insulinlike growth factor). Together, insulin and IGF enable cells to grow very quickly. They also promote inflammation and help cancerous cells to invade neighboring tissues. There is a pretty obvious consensus forming across medical disciplines: sugar and refined carbohydrates are not helpful and really have no place in the human diet, apart from one or two feasts per year—not one or two feasts per day.
The second highest risk for cancer after tobacco is obesity. Yet here there is something known as the American Paradox. Over the last forty years American fat consumption has declined by 11%, calorie intake has declined by 4%, while obesity has risen by 31%. This American Paradox was solved by the French, who noted that the rise in obesity was not due to junk food and lack of exercise. They observed that the amount of fatty tissue in children under the age of one doubled between 1970 and 1990. Unless we have reached a new low in our civilization, whereby we feed McDonalds to babies, this increase in fatty tissue is not due to fast food. This fatty tissue increase was not down to calories either. Babies have the same amount of milk as previous generations. What changed was the composition of the fat in the milk, whether the milk was from formula, cows, or the breast. The milk was laden with omega-6 fatty acids at the expense of omega-3 fatty acids and this was making young children fat. Unfortunately this imbalance in favor of omega-6 also helps cancer cells.
This imbalance came about because animals are fed fodder over their natural diet, changing the ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 in their meat and milk. Similarly, ladies who consume a diet high in omega-6 will express this in their breast milk. Normally, chickens, sheep, and cattle have an omega-3 to omega-6 ratio of 1:1. If you eat these animals or drink their milk you will be getting good amounts of omega-3. Nowadays this ratio has been disrupted. There is up to forty times more omega-6 in meat and milk than omega-3. Moreover, do not make the mistake of thinking that organic meat and milk changes this ratio. It doesn’t. Organic animals are often fed organic fodder high in omega-6. What is needed is a change to grass-fed animal products.
This unexpected source of omega-6 shows that a person might be eating an organic diet, low in sugar and refined carbohydrates, which could disrupt the fatty acid profile in his body, making him prone to obesity, inflammation, vascular disease, and cancer. This does not factor in other more insidious sources of omega-6 such as fast food, vegetable and seed oils, and fried food, all of which are very present in the standard Western diet. These sources result in seventy times more omega-6 than omega-3, which stiffens cells, provokes yet more inflammation, produces fat cells, and helps cancer to form, then spread. The omega-6 found in vegetable oil has led to another paradox termed the Israeli Paradox. Jewish kosher laws prohibit the use of meat and milk in the same meal, leading Israelis to use margarine and vegetable oils. This means Israelis have some of the lowest cholesterol rates in the world, but the highest rates of heart attacks and obesity among Western nations.
We can deduce the two main changes we need to make are to remove sugar, white flour, and refined carbohydrates from our diets, then balance the omega-3 to omega-6 ratio through the fats that we eat—a simple low carb diet is not sufficient. The other important change is to eat as many vegetables as possible accompanied with reasonable amounts of fruit. There is another important finding discovered here in Canada.
The University of Montreal has one of the largest laboratories specializing in cancer biology in the world. Some thirty years ago, at this laboratory, Professor Richard Beliveau discovered that chemicals in food fought cancer at the cellular level. He presented his findings to colleagues and was ignored. He then changed tack and presented findings showing the existence of new molecules that fought cancer. His audience listened as his results were stunning. They wanted to start trials immediately. These molecules were again from food; Professor Beliveau had simply renamed them. Thus the term nutraceuticals was born. For a complete list of beneficial nutraceuticals you need to read the book. Here, by way of example, we confine ourselves to one important nutraceutical, namely, green tea.
Green tea contains polyphenols called catechins, the main catechin being EGCG (epigallocatechin gallate), which is destroyed during fermentation. This explains why cancer protection from black tea is not afforded to the British—that nation of tea drinkers. EGCG blocks receptors on cells that allow penetration by cancer cells. It stops cancer from spreading. For children with brain tumors radiography is often too dangerous as it destroys too many healthy cells. But if cells of the child’s tumor are exposed to green tea it makes them more sensitive to very small doses of radiotherapy. The ideal amount of green tea for cancer prevention is two to three small cups a day.
Food is not the only substance that provokes inflammation. Stress must not be underestimated. When we are stressed noradrenaline and cortisol are produced. Consider this remarkable finding. Teenagers exposed to stress and trauma produce excess cortisol. When they see, feel, and hear their mother they produce oxytocin that dampens the cortisol. When they just hear their mother’s voice they produce some oxytocin that somewhat helps against the cortisol. When they receive only text messages of support from their mother, it’s as if they had no emotional support whatsoever. None.
This social contact is incredibly important, and must come from both family and friends. It vaccinates us against cancer. Research led by Professor Steve Cole at the University of California, Los Angeles, shows that social contact switches on and off genes that regulate the rate of tumor growth and the level of cancer-killing lymphocytes in our bloodstream. Research out of Stanford, published in the Lancet, found that women who have breast cancer are twice as likely to survive more than ten years if they have social support. They needed trust, natural laughter, and camaraderie. In contrast, people who are despondent find it much more difficult to rid themselves of cancer.
This feeling of social isolation and helplessness was confirmed in 2008 by a huge meta-analysis of 165 existing studies. The findings were unambiguous: a feeling of helplessness, stress, and social problems increased the risk of cancer in healthy people and reduced survival rates in those that had cancer. In fact, the University of Pittsburgh showed that people who have an optimistic, cheerful social disposition have many more active natural killer cells than people who are isolated and despondent.
Allied to the yang of a healthy family and social life is the yin of a deep, completive inner life. Those who cultivate a deep, healthy inner life are not those who are always connected to email, to phones, reading everything, everywhere, or who are constantly busy working. Being busy with work at the expense of family, friends, and an inner life is not a marker of success. Increasingly, truly successful businesses are recognizing this. Volkswagen do not allow employees to receive emails after-hours or during holidays. Thanks to Italian research we know that religious chanting, and this would include dhikr, benefits biological rhythms such as heart rate and blood pressure. These biological rhythms line up together, then amplify each other. Moreover, group religious chanting in unison, wherein individuals do not stand out, and this would include the hadra, further amplifies the physiological effect upon biological rhythms. The New York Academy of Sciences found that this physiological amplification led to a better immune system, the reduction of inflammation, and better blood sugar control. The very things that halt cancer.
After a series of scans and tests confirming his cancer was in remission our author met a remarkable lady. In a rural outpost of America he met an elderly Native American lady who had the gift of insight and healing. It was a chance meeting. Drawing him close she placed her hands on his head, then thought for a short time. Not knowing about his cancer she told him that the illness of his head had passed, but would return. This proved to be the case. In 2011, some twenty years after his first diagnosis, the cancer returned. This time it was too aggressive, too advanced to cure, and David died from a malignant brain tumor. He had done well surviving much longer than most. Just before his death he wrote that his misplaced devotion to work meant that he had neglected many aspects of his anticancer plan, particularly those aspects that focused upon stress reduction, family, friends, and emotional health. He had been too busy and now it killed him.
The success of his plan lies in the multiplicity of its treatments taken together over a prolonged period of time. There is no magic bullet, no single drug intervention able to reverse the disease. Preventing cancer is similar. Taking a green tea capsule in the hope of avoiding cancer is not going to work. What is needed is a change in lifestyle that weaves together the strands of food, herbs, and exercise. Conventional treatment should not be rejected. It works alongside lifestyle changes. A robust emotional health full of cheer and free of helplessness should be cultivated. As must a true inner life populated by moments of quietude and dhikr. Group worship, whether prayer, a hadra, or a mawlid is essential. A strong, balanced, real-world social life with both family and friends has to be nurtured, away from the drain of work, phones, and computers. Together, all of these strands of life join to inoculate us against cancer.