Avoiding killer diseases

At the age of 31, Schreiber 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 didn’t show up, he was suddenly stripped of his white-coat status and thrown into the gray world of patients.  The scan revealed a tumor that turned out to be cancer. Being a physician didn’t protect him from cancer, but it allowed him to dig deeply into medical literature in search of ways to live longer than the few years he was expected to survive.

            This column is taken from the 2009 March/April issue of AARP Magazine (given to me by a reader/friend).  It tells about how Servan-Schreiber, M.D researched and found new ways of avoiding a killer disease—or keeping it from coming back.  This is the first in a series in which I plan to include some ways to incorporate what the author has learned into our lives.  

            I hope you will read this series, and take it seriously because one person in three is getting cancer.  Those are even stronger odds than that you will spend the end of your life in a nursing home and many of you are prepared for that event with long term care insurance. This information may be the best insurance you ever had and it is free!

            The first thing Schreiber learned was that we all carry cancer cells in us, even if only a few.  But we also have natural defenses that prevent these cells from becoming aggressive disease.  These defenses include our immune system; the bodily functions that 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 brain cancer, Schreiber knew he would have to strengthen his 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, pancreatic and testicular cancers for example are still rising.  While 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 thirty years ending in 1999.  Asian countries have not experienced the same trends.  Yet within one or two generations, Asian Americans get cancer 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 same cancer risk as 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 don’t do enough of—with our lives. 

            When it comes to surviving cancer once it is diagnosed, Schreiber says, “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.”  (I wonder how many attempts have been made to prove the effectiveness of less invasive and less expensive natural therapies).

            Schreiber continues.  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:  1. when our immune system is weakened and less capable of detecting and destroying budding tumors; 2. when low-grade chronic inflammation in our body supports the invasion of neighboring tissue; 3. 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, 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 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. 

It is time we took charge of our health as has become clear that cancer, like most other devastating diseases we are seeing, is not likely to be cured, or prevented, in a laboratory.

(next week we continue with “Choose health”.)     


(Janice Norris lives in Heber Springs, has a B.S. in home economics from Murray State University, owned and operated health food stores in Illinois and Heber Springs, and wrote a weekly column in Illinois for 15 years. She can be reached at janicenorris34@yahoo.com)