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Examining 'Anticancer: A New Way of Life'

April 20, 2009|Kendall Powell

Whenever there's a program on nutrition at the Wellness Community's West L.A. cancer support center, Michael States knows to expect a full house.

Nutrition is one thing that cancer patients or survivors "can go home and take control of," says the director of clinical programs.

People with a cancer diagnosis crave tangible advice on how to help their treatment or improve their long-term odds. A recently published book, "Anticancer: A New Way of Life," aims to fill that void -- and it is resonating with cancer support communities.

The author, physician-scientist and two-time brain cancer survivor David Servan-Schreiber, lays out the evidence for complementary treatments or preventive measures for cancer -- diet, exercise and more. And he condemns the reluctance of most conventional physicians to recommend these approaches.

A copy of the book donated to the Wellness Community's library has been checked out continually over the last few months. The book is recommended nationwide on Internet message boards. "It's the hot read right now," says chef Elisa Hunziker of L.A., a breast cancer survivor.

Beyond checkups

Servan-Schreiber was first diagnosed with brain cancer at age 31. After a relapse seven years later and a second round of surgery and chemotherapy, he said he was shocked when his oncologist's only recommendation for further prevention was surveillance. Was there nothing else he could do?

The moment spurred him to study what science had revealed about the power of lifestyle changes to fight cancer.

Studies, he found, suggest all of the following may reduce the risk of getting cancer: eating fruits and vegetables, staying away from sugar and bad fats, exercising, fostering a positive mental outlook and practicing relaxation techniques such as yoga and meditation.

And, he read, a few preliminary studies suggests these facets of healthy living may also improve the outcome for people with cancer diagnoses.

Servan-Schreiber turns these general guidelines into much more specific advice -- drink green tea not soda, air out dry-cleaned clothes before wearing them, choose grass-fed beef if you must eat meat.

He focuses on four areas where he feels the evidence for a cancer-protective effect is strong: detoxifying your internal and external environments, eating "anti-cancer" foods, increasing physical activity, and pursuing emotional peace.

The section on anti-cancer foods has some of the strongest evidence. For example, a component found in the spice turmeric has been shown to inhibit a key chemical pathway in cancer cells. That pathway is important to a cancer cell's ability to keep dividing.

Polyphenols in green tea, including one called EGCG, reduce growth of new blood vessels in animal studies (a process tumors need to grow) and suppress the growth of several cancer cell lines in the lab.

Garlic, leeks and onions strongly inhibit growth of colon, brain, lung, prostate and breast cancer cells in the lab.

Omega-3 fats in fish oil reduce inflammation, a culprit in cancer and heart disease.

"I had always separated food from drugs," says Servan-Schreiber, who admits to eating lunches of a refined-flour bagel, a sugar-loaded Coke and fatty, salty chili before his diagnosis. "But food is a low-grade pharmacological intervention, three times a day every day, that can profoundly influence your biology."

The book's clear explanations and practical summaries, plus Servan-Schreiber's triple dose of street cred, as a doctor, scientist and cancer survivor, are responsible for the book's popularity, Hunziker says.

"It's a complete education in cancer prevention for $25.95," she says.

Some evidence

Much of the food advice is based on the work of Richard Beliveau, a biochemist at University of Quebec at Montreal whose laboratory has tested many plant-based compounds on cancer cells in culture and in animal models of cancer.

The gold standard scientific test, of course, would be large, controlled clinical trials -- but these are rare. Studies with thousands of patients are hard to design properly and must run a long time to test for cancer prevention. Finally, such trials are expensive, and because there's no way to patent yoga or green tea, there is no corporate money to fund them.

In the absence of the gold standard, Beliveau and Servan-Schreiber say that a food must have three types of evidence to be considered a strong cancer-prevention candidate:

* Studies that show eating a food is linked to lowered cancer incidence in a large population.

* Studies showing a food compound can prevent cancer cell growth in the lab dish.

* Studies that show the food component can block cancer's progression in an animal.

Foods with all three types of evidence include ones rich in omega-3 fatty acids (such as fish and fish oil), leafy green vegetables (from the broccoli and onion families), the berry family, the citrus family, spices such as turmeric and ginger, and polyphenols such as resveratrol (found in red wine) and catechins (in green tea).

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