This is the full 800-word version of a comparative book review that appeared in shorter form on the Sunday Pittsburgh Post-Gazette books page. The two books, Anticancer: A New Way of Life by David Servan-Schreiber, M.D., Ph.D. and Trick or Treatment: The Undeniable Facts About Alternative Medicine by Simon Singh and Edzard Ernst, M.D., may literally save lives.
Review of Anticancer: A New Way of Life
by David Servan-Schreiber, M.D., Ph.D.
(Viking, 272 pages, $25.95, September, 2008)
Trick or Treatment: The Undeniable Facts About Alternative Medicine
by Simon Singh and Edzard Ernst, M.D.
(Norton, 352 pages, $25.95, August, 2008)
Reviewed by Dr. Fred Bortz
(Copyright 2008, Alfred B. Bortz, all rights reserved)
A full-length review of Trick or Treatment will be posted here after it is published in the Seattle Times.
If you have struggled with a chronic or life-threatening illness or agonized while a loved one does the same, you are painfully aware of the limitations of conventional medical treatment. And you surely have asked, “Isn’t there another way?”
Two new books approach that question from two very different viewpoints. At first glance, their answers also seem very different–a definitive and enthusiastic yes from Anticancer: A New Way of Life, and a shrill warning about risks from Trick or Treatment: The Undeniable Facts About Alternative Medicine.
But the disagreement is only an illusion. Both books advocate care based on science and clinical trials, which they describe by the same words, “evidence-based medicine.” The main distinction between the books is simply different adjectives: “alternative” vs. “complementary” or “integrative.”
Trick or Treatment pulls no punches. Its authors, noted British science journalist Simon Singh and Edzard Ernst, M.D., the U.K.’s first professor of complementary medicine, deliver a powerful indictment of medical treatments based on anecdotes and conjectures rather than on established science.
The book describes scientific evaluation of all forms of conventional and alternative medical treatments, with fully developed chapters about acupuncture, homeopathy, chiropractic therapy, and herbal medicine. Its message, though shrill, is vital: These therapies are rarely beneficial and often dangerous.
Singh and Ernst’s greatest concern is that practitioners of alternative regimes often claim benefits for a wide range of conditions, contrary to the science, and disparage the benefits of conventional treatment. Patients who follow such advice have allowed life-threatening conditions to progress beyond the point of no return.
The author of Anticancer, David Servan-Schreiber, M.D., Ph.D., strongly agrees with Singh and Ernst: The first line of defense against cancer is conventional treatment. In fact, he owes his life to it.
Currently clinical professor of Psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine and cofounder of its Center for Integrative Medicine, Servan-Schreiber was 31 years old when his neurological research took an ominous turn. When a student subject for a functional MRI study of the prefrontal cortex failed to show, he volunteered himself as a replacement.
The test revealed a walnut-sized malignant tumor. Had it been larger, the prognosis would have been dire. Surgery offered the best chance of a cure, but no long-term guarantee.
Brain cancers are notoriously difficult to remove. Even the most skillful surgeons leave undetectable traces of the tumor behind. Still, Servan-Schreiber’s annual follow-up tests were clear. He returned to his high-pressure, grab-a-bite-of-fast-food-when-you-can routine.
The cloud over his life was lifting. Then, after seven years, came the relapse. This time his surgery was followed by thirteen months of chemotherapy. And this time he asked his oncology team if there were some things he could do to complement the treatment.
Could he change his lifestyle or diet?
It couldn’t hurt, they told him; but it probably wouldn’t help. As someone who wanted to beat his cancer, Servan-Schreiber was eager to try anything. But as a scientist, he was not about to grope blindly. It was time for serious research into the relationship between cancer, lifestyle issues, and chemicals in the environment. Anticancer, published in his native France last year (15 years after his first diagnosis) and now appearing in English, is the result.
In presenting the science of cancer, Servan-Schreiber offers clear and vivid descriptions of the initiation, development, and treatment of the disease. Everyone, he notes, develops abnormal cells, “microtumors,” all the time. Those cancer seeds have the capability of hijacking the body’s normal protective functions, such as inflammation, to take root and develop a blood supply.
Our bodies are battlefields between our immune systems and those mini-cancers. The outcome of those battles depends in part on an individual’s genetic makeup, but environmental toxins and lifestyle factors–diet, exercise, and response to emotional stressors–are usually of much greater importance.
The book has numerous tables and a 16-page full-color “Anticancer Action” insert that summarize the “New Way of Life” of the subtitle.
Those alone are worth the purchase price, but Servan-Schreiber’s writing offers much more than science. It is full of passion for his topic and compassion for his psychiatric patients dealing with the emotional aspects of serious or terminal illness.
Normally, details of the author’s personal life would seem superfluous in such a book, but in this case, his account of finding the love of his life and their painful divorce is compelling. Equally moving is a short chapter on facing the fear of death.
Those sections are integral to the presentation, just as having an anticancer diet, an anticancer mindset, an anticancer body, and an anticancer environment can be to living–and even thriving–with cancer.
Fred Bortz is a physicist and author of 17 books for young readers.