“Anticancer: a new way of life” is the title of a book written by Dr David Servan-Schreiber, who was clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine(1). At the age of 31 years the author was diagnosed with brain cancer. This stimulated him to investigate various methods and approaches to overcome the cancer. As a consequence he made alterations to his lifestyle that enabled him to survive for a further 20years. He died in July 2011. The book is the story of his life and describes what he discovered. Because of his cancer and his specialised understanding of medicine the book provides a unique insight into current knowledge of the disease. Anyone who has cancer will find it to be extremely valuable and encouraging. But the book also has important lessons on how cancer can be prevented. In this blog I can only touch on some of the key messages and I would strongly recommend it. Alternatively it is worth consulting the Anticancer website(2).
Although some people may be at high risk of developing cancer because of their genes, the fact remains that there has been a huge increase in the incidence of cancer in the recent past which can only have been caused by changes in the environment. In particular, during the last 50 years there has been:
- The addition of large quantities of highly refined sugar to the diet
- Changes in the agriculture(both plant and animal production) which directly affects the food we eat
- Exposure to a large number of chemical products which did not exist before 1940.
Although the book relates to the USA, similar changes have occurred in the British Isles and most other developed countries.
Sugar is especially interesting because it is also strongly implicated in several other chronic diseases/conditions including diabetes, obesity, heart disease and Alzheimer’s Disease (see Blogs 34, 36). As far back as the 1930s the German scientist Otto Warburg discovered that glucose is an important nutrient for malignant cells. Glucose is produced when sugar is digested but is released from other foods rich in carbohydrates including flour, potatoes, rice and pasta. When the blood glucose rises rapidly (especially with highly refined products) this causes the production of insulin which facilitates the entry of glucose into the cells. This is accompanied by the release of insulin-like growth factor (IGF) which has the role of stimulating cell growth. It has been established that high levels of insulin and IGF not only stimulate the growth of cancer cells but also their ability to invade neighbouring tissues.
In the Women’s Health Initiative which involved almost 100,000 post-menopausal women it was found that those with high levels of insulin in their blood had double the incidence of breast cancer compared with those with the lowest levels. These findings add to the existing case for restricting the intake of sugar as well as other carbohydrates foods, which are sources of readily available glucose(3).
Ideally the omega-6: omega-3 fatty acid ratio in the diet should be between 1 and 4. However in a typical US or UK diet this is currently 15 or higher. A contributory factor has been the adoption of intensive methods in farm animal production. This has resulted in a significant increase in the ratio of foods such as milk, meat and eggs. In cattle for example, this has been caused by the replacement of much of the grass with grain such as corn, soya or wheat. Some of the consequences of a high ratio of omega-6: omega-3 including increased risk of cancer has been discussed in Blog 15.
By contrast, Servan-Schreiber also identified a number of foods which are protective and possibly act as a cure for various cancers. These include:
- Green tea which contains polyphenols that have the ability to prevent the formation of new blood vessels by cancerous cells to enable tumours grow and develop. These molecules are destroyed during the preparation of black tea. There is experimental evidence to show that the molecules can slow the growth of leukaemia as well as cancers of the breast, prostate, kidney, skin and mouth. In men with tumours of the prostate, consumption of 5 cups of green tea every day reduced the risk that the cancer would progress to the advanced stage by 50%.
- Turmeric is the spice which gives the yellow colour to curry. It has extremely powerful anti-inflammatory properties which is beneficial because inflammation is often the starting point for chronic disease such as heart disease and cancer. Turmeric also contains the active ingredient curcumin which in laboratory studies inhibits the growth many different cancers including those of the colon, prostate, lung, liver stomach, breast and ovary. On average Indians consume almost 2g of turmeric per day and a have very much lower incidence of cancer than comparable Western populations. For example lung and colon cancer are about 90% less than in the West.
- Many berries contain compounds which are known to be affective against cancer cells. Ellagic acid which is present in both raspberries and strawberries have the ability to slow the growth of tumours significantly in mice which have been exposed to aggressive carcinogens. Blueberries contain anthocyanidins and proanthocyanidins which can force cancer cells to destroy themselves. Celery and parsley contain apigenine which can inhibit the formation of the cancer cells blood vessels and therefore interfere with their growth.
This is only a small selection of the wealth of information in the book. Many of the ideas presented are easily implemented. The reality is that conventional medicine has made relatively little progress in curing cancer and that strategies such as radiotherapy and chemotherapy have very severe side-effects. On the other hand the approaches outlined in this book have been in existence for a long time and are virtually guaranteed to be free of nasty side-effects. Finally most of them are relatively inexpensive!
- D Servan-Schreiber(2011) “Anticancer: a new way of life” Penguin Health ISBN 978-0-718-15684-8
- M J Gunter et al (2009) Journal of the National Cancer Institute 101 (1) pp 48-60