Cancer Patients Nourish Life and Hope

Cancer Patients Nourish Life and Hope
By David Servan-Schreiber, M.D., Ph.D
What is worse for cancer patients: false hope or false hopelessness?
At age 31, my life took a sudden turn. I was an ambitious physician and neuroscience researcher who reveled in discovery and glittering science projects. Then, slipping into a brain scanner one evening in place of a subject who hadn’t shown up, I was suddenly stripped of my white-coat status and thrown into the gray world of patients: That evening, I discovered that I had brain cancer.
After conventional treatment, a relapse a few years later, and more conventional treatment, I asked my oncologist march2010_cancer_patients_nourish_life_and_hopewhat I could change in my life to prevent cancer from coming back. “Nothing,” he said, “we’ll just follow you regularly with scans and we’ll catch it early if it comes back”. As a physician myself, I knew where he was coming from. One of the main concerns of any physician is to not impart false hope to a patient. And my doctor didn’t know of any studies showing that diet, or exercise, or managing the stress in my life differently could affect the risk of a relapse. 
But being a doctor allowed me to dig deeply into the medical and scientific literature to find out everything I could do to help my body resist the disease most efficiently and try to beat the median survival of just a few years. And I discovered a vast array of evidence pointing to how I could create a anticancer biology in my body through the choices I made in how I lead my life day to day.
Several years later, even more scientific evidence has accumulated that shows the importance of what each person can do to help prevent or slow down cancer. In 2008, a study from Ohio State University in the journal Cancer followed women who had been treated for breast cancer that had already spread to neighboring tissue. Those who took part in a group which taught them how to eat better, include more physical activity in their daily routine, and manage stress more effectively (with a breathing technique and reaching out to friends) had a 54% reduction in mortality!
Now, 17 years after my initial diagnosis, I’m in better health and happier than before I was ever ill. What I’ve learned in my own journey of 17 years with cancer is that the best way to go on living is not so much to “fight the disease.” To the contrary, it’s to nourish life at all levels of my being: through my meals three times a day, through my walks in nature, through the meaning and purpose I find in my actions, and through the flow of love in my relationships. Science told me that this slows down cancer, but, perhaps more importantly, it helped me overcome hopelessness. And to realize it was a false hopelessness that my profession and my own training had imposed on me when I’d become a patient.
  Spring 2010 Greening Your Life Newsletter
march2010_dr__servan-schreiberDavid Servan-Schreiber, M.D., Ph.D. is a writer, neuroscientist and Clinical Professor of Psychiatry, University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. He is also a lecturer in the Faculty of Medicine of Lyon I in France. He co-founded and then directed the Centre for Integrative Medicine of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. Following his volunteer activity as physician in Iraq in 1991, he was one of the original founders of the US branch of Médecins Sans Frontières, the international organization that was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1999. In 2002 he was awarded the Pennsylvania Psychiatric Society Presidential Award for Outstanding Career in Psychiatry. He is the author of Healing Without Freud or Prozac (translated in 29 languages, 1.3 million copies sold) and Anticancer, a New Way of Life (translated in 35 languages, New York Times best-seller, 1 million copies in print) in which he discloses his own diagnosis with a malignant brain tumor at the age of 31 and the self-help program that he put together to complement his conventional treatment. A complete CV is available at
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