Dr. David Servan-Schreiber, the French physician and neuroscientist and a pioneer of “integrative” medicine, died Sunday at 50 of the cancer he’d been fighting for 20 years.
Servan-Schreiber was the author of the worldwide bestselling book Anticancer: A New Way of Life, in which he recounts his experience of finding by accident that he had a malignant brain tumor at age 30. He underwent conventional chemotherapy and radiation, and then a few years later suffered what he called a “relapse.”
Usually Americans with cancer call these “recurrences,” but Servan-Schreiber, a Frenchman, always called his a “relapse.” He used the same word addicts use when their illness becomes active again, and his word-choice always struck me as interesting. Language is powerful, and Servan-Schreiber’s language makes me think of addiction as just another chronic illness, like cancer.
After his relapse, Servan-Schreiber underwent chemo and radiation again, then decided to improve his chances of survival by taking control of his lifestyle choices. He had been told by his physicians that his “lifestyle”—what he ate and drank; how much he exercised; his habits of work and rest; his relationships—wouldn’t make a difference in terms of his cancer’s outcome. But Servan-Schreiber, a neuroscientist as well as a psychiatrist, dove into the medical literature and discovered a great deal of evidence that certain foods (particularly sugar) promote cancer growth, and that exercise, meditation, and loving relationships all support the body’s ability to heal itself and to work along with the conventional treatments to fight cancer and other illness.
His chapters on “The Anticancer Mind” and “Defusing Fear” are worth the price of the book. I covered the chapter about “the anticancer mind” with notes in the margins. Because in my opinion, the “anticancer mind” and the “anti-addiction mind” are synonymous. For example, he writes:
When people have the feeling that their life is no longer manageable, or that it leads to more suffering than joy … the neurological response to this stress is the release of stress hormones like noradrenaline and cortisol.
(Emphasis mine: Step 2.)
He goes on to say that these hormones suppress the immune system and make it more difficult for people to fight illnesses such as cancer. In my experience, they also make an addict like me more likely to want to control these feelings by using drugs, alcohol, food, sex, gambling, etc.—thus the term “self-medication.” I suppose it’s just another way of saying that these feelings make it more difficult for people to fight illnesses such as addiction.
To combat this physiological response, he advocates a form of calming the body-mind called “cardiac coherence,” and says practices such as Tai Chi, yoga, and meditation all end up with the same result.
(I use the term “body-mind” because I used to think they were connected, but my experience tells me that they’re actually the same fabric… the science is showing up to support this.)
My favorite book of his is called The Instinct to Heal: Curing Stress, Anxiety, and Depression Without Drugs and Without Talk Therapy. In it he describes my original concept of Higher Power: the idea that the body-mind has an inborn urge toward healing that, if it’s supported—or at least not interfered with—can help us achieve wholeness and contentment.
He lays out the data for seven non-pharmacological methods for easing depression and anxiety. This is what I loved best about him (aside from the facts that he was brilliantly smart, and beautiful inside and out). He wasn’t woo-woo: he was data-oriented, but he also had an enormous heart and a great deal of compassion for people who suffer.
Servan-Schreiber helped found the Center for Integrative Medicine at Shadyside Hospital of the University of Pittsburgh, which, amazingly, is three blocks from where I live. I had a chance to interview him in 2009. A celebrity author in Europe, he called himself “the Andrew Weil of France and Germany” and said he wasn’t out to gain fame and fortune:
My goal is not about reputation. My goal is to influence how people manage their own health and how we in medicine treat them in that respect.
Here is some more of what he told me:
DSS: I don’t focus on attacking addictions head-on. One of the things that surprised me very positively and I think is a sign, is that several people have written to me saying, “I read your book Anticancer, and even though it never talks about smoking”—and it doesn’t—“I stopped smoking.” Which is a really interesting consequence. As they became interested in what they were eating and in their relationship to their own bodies, then at some point it just dawned on them that it’s sort of silly to be paying attention to what you eat three times a day and then continue to smoke. So there was a change in their relationship to their body and a new way of managing stress for them to stop smoking.
On the benefits of meditative practices (step 11) for adults and kids
DSS: Cardiac coherence hasn’t met the mainstream yet. Although in some ways it has been in the mainstream for 10,000 years. Because when you do Tai Chi exercises, or qi gong, or yoga, you’re inducing cardiac coherence. So there have been a variety of folk methods that have been widely practiced for thousands of years that are a form of cardiac coherence; we just didn’t know they were.
It’s a short-cut. A lot of people do tai chi and they don’t feel anything. One of the reasons is we’re so out of touch with our body and our sensations that we do a few tai chi movements, and so what? If I can show you [through data] that it actually impacts in a highly visible and profound manner the one health parameter that is most linked to long-term benefits such as reduction of mortality—there is no other health parameter that is so powerfully linked to health. Cholesterol is peanuts compared to cardiac coherence.
For children, the immediate benefit is a better management of their emotional states, which a lot of what we’re trying to teach our kids is about. To delay gratification, to not fight back in anger, to not curse, to not hit, and so on. We’re trying to teach them about emotional management. … We forget about this, but kids identify with stress very readily. They have exams, they have other kids who [bully] them or spurn them—they have a lot of stress. And when you tell them about stress and about how to manage their emotions so as to let stress glide on them like water on a duck’s back, they get it immediately, and they’re very interested.
Does everyone have access to the Instinct to Heal?
DSS: I think it’s part of how we’re made up. I think sometimes it can be very strongly inhibited or constrained. Because of what people have lived through, for example. Multiple traumas in childhood; estrangement from parents; abandonments—all of these impair the instinct to heal in some way.
G: You can’t just say “cut down on tobacco and alcohol”—if you’re an addict, you have to quit and change your life.
DSS: I completely agree. Which is the main problem of the mainstream message about prevention and cancer. They just say, “Well, don’t be obese, don’t drink, and don’t smoke.” Which is precisely what people cannot do. They have no control over that. They use their relationship to food, to alcohol, and to smoking as a way to manage their emotions. And you can’t strip that off of them. So you need to teach them new ways to manage their emotions. And then progressively teach them things they can add to their lifestyle instead of focusing on what they need to remove from their lifestyle.