At the age of 31, while David Servan-Schreiber, M.D., Ph.D., was testing his own brain-scanning machine, he discovered that he had a malignant brain tumor the size of a walnut. When he asked his oncologist for guidance on diet and lifestyle, the answer was typical: Just do what you're doing. But according to Servan-Schreiber, now 47, a clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine and the author of Anticancer: A New Way of Life (Viking, 2008), we can do more to prevent or control cancer.
Diet Detective: Cancer seems so confusing; can you give us a brief explanation?
Dr. Servan-Schreiber: Cancer cells develop all the time in a healthy body. They are simply cells that, like rebel armed bandits, have learned to escape the rules of organized society. They no longer respond to signals from neighboring cells and tissues telling them that they are overcrowding others and should stop multiplying.
We are all equipped with natural defenses that can counteract these rebel cells before they have become large armies, and that can prevent them from developing into dangerous tumors.
Diet Detective: What's the biggest cancer myth?
Dr. Servan-Schreiber: That cancer is a genetic lottery and that you inherit your cancer risk from your parents' genes. When our lifestyle (85 percent contribution), or our genetic makeup (15 percent) either support cancer growth or interfere with our natural defenses, cancer develops. Yes, cancer runs in families, but that is because our parents pass on their poor lifestyle habits, which matter more than their genes.
Diet Detective: Do you believe that you can prevent cancer with diet alone?
Dr. Servan-Schreiber: The World Cancer Research Fund estimates that at least 40 percent of cancers could be prevented with diet and physical activity alone.
Diet Detective: How does the traditional American diet create conditions for cancer to thrive?
Dr. Servan-Schreiber: Look at the American national dish: hamburger and french fries, with a white bun and ketchup. You couldn't do better if you wanted to try to promote cancer growth: red meat (the No. 1 food ingredient associated with a variety of cancers), grown on corn and soy (which remove the healthy omega-3s found in grass-fed meat), and bovine growth hormone (which stimulates all cell growth, including cancer cells); French fries: a rare vegetable that does not help slow cancer growth but, on the contrary, stimulates insulin release and thus cell growth, dipped in omega-6 inflammation-promoting oil and fried to increased oxidative stress; white bread: which again stimulates insulin release; ketchup: a rich source of high-fructose corn syrup, associated with insulin resistance and obesity.
In addition, our insistence on eating mostly meat (10.5 ounces per day, when the World Cancer Research Fund advocates 12 ounces per week) greatly reduces the amount of cancer-fighting vegetables in our diet.