Recently, one of my patients recommended I read Anticancer: A New Way of Life by David Servan-Schreiber, M.D., Ph.D (Viking, New York, NY, 2009). I am very grateful for her recommendation, as it seems like the number of people I know, both personally and professionally who are dealing with this brutal disease — and the harsh treatment it so often necessitates — is way too high. And yet, there are many things we can do to make our bodies far less hospitable to cancer.

Written by an M.D. who was diagnosed with a brain tumor 15 years ago and was dissatisfied with his oncologist’s assessment that what he did wouldn’t have any affect on his health, this book is highly readable, peppered with interesting scientific studies, and very practical advice. He considers what makes the ecosystem that is each human body conducive to cancer’s growth? Turns out, food, chronic helplessness and other emotions, and toxins in the environment have a lot to do with it.

Some points I found particularly interesting:
The role of inflammation
Cancer can’t grow without supply lines: blood vessels to get it resources. Blood vessels don’t multiply for no reason — only when the body is in need of tissue repair. Cancer hijacks the body’s inflammation process to create the bloods vessel infrastructure it needs to support its rapid growth. Foods that increase inflammation (like sugar, fried stuff, and pretty much everything else in the Standard American Diet) act as cancer fertilizer, and foods that are anti-inflammatory cut off the supply lines.

The power of synergy

Turmeric, a the bright yellow-orange spice common in Indian cooking that adds color and flavor to curries, has long-been recognized by both Chinese Medicine and Ayurveda as an anti-inflammatory herb. It has been shown not only to prevent tumor growth, but to force cancer cells to kill themselves. But when combined with black pepper or ginger, it becomes 2,000 percent more effective.

2-3 cups of green tea per day provides enough EGCG in the blood to settle on the surface of cells and prevents them from being invaded by cancers. It has been shown to even more effective when combined with soy in food form like tofu or miso (and not from concentrated soy isoflavones).

Studies where 2, 3, and 4 anti-cancer foods were combined together showed greater efficacy than administering only one of the anti-cancer foods. In Chinese Medicine, we combine herbs together for the same reason: the blend is more powerful than the individual parts.

Food as medicine

In Chinese Medicine, every time we eat is an opportunity to promote health, simply survive, or to contribute to a disease process. Servan-Schriber makes this point in the his chapter on “the anticancer foods,” as he outlines the healthful properties of berries, citrus, stone fruits, mushrooms, olive oil, leafy greens, colorful veggies, cruciferous vegetables, the mint family, garlic, dark chocolate, red wine, soy and many other wonderful foods. This chapter could easily be called the “anti-arthritis foods” or the “anti-heart disease foods,” as the recommendations are very similar with an edible cast of characters seen again and again as helpful for different diseases.

Breathing, meditation, yoga, qigong and other active relaxation practices produce coherent rhythms in the body, indicating adaptability and thus resistance to cancer and heart disease, increase the body’s ability to handle stress, and boost the immune system.

Connections

Women with breast cancer who could name 10 friends (location unimportant) had survival rates 4x higher than those who couldn’t, in a large-scale study of US nurses.

Empowerment
What I appreciated most about this book is its practicality in empowering people to take action: specifically, to eat a variety of whole foods, vegetables, fruits, and spices; reduce sugar and refined flour, animal fats, vegetable oils and other foods high in Omega-6s; deal with old emotions, stay connected to loved ones, and avoid toxins in everyday life whenever possible. This is completely in line with Chinese Medical theory that we are connected to our environment, that what we do and consume every day can move us towards or away from health, and that chronic emotions like loneliness and helplessness are just as much of risk factors for disease as cigarette smoking. I also love that someone else has compiled such excellent and digestible research that confirms what Chinese Medicine has known for thousands of years, with such great charts and graphs.

There’s lots of stuff I’m leaving out. I highly recommend reading the book. Or at the very least, eating a little turmeric with black pepper every day.

In the Pacific Northwest, where I live and practice Chinese Medicine, the cessation of the long rainy season (late June this year) marks the dramatic start of summer, and people take off running. More than a few patients report that there is so much they want experience this summer that they pack their schedules full:  entertaining a string of out-of-town guests, tending enormous gardens, going on epic hikes and bike rides, lots of parties and cookouts. And yet, with all the doing of these activities which should add up to satisfaction from getting the most out of life, many people confess to feeling depleted.  They are exhausted as they attempt to keep up with the demands of the season.  Feelings of depression often accompany such fatigue — feelings which can be confusing because adding more “fun stuff” to their schedule is not actually increasing their joy—it’s depleting it! What is happening here is that people are getting caught up in the yang of the season, expending too much of their own yang qi, and burning up their yin in the process.

Summer is the most yang of the seasons. It is associated with the element of  Fire, the emotion of joy.  As we resonate with the season, the urge to do more, to get up earlier and stay up later, and to be more social is natural. But too much of that throws us off balance. Even in the summer, it’s not daytime all the time — we still have to cycle through nighttime. And living in a culture that already emphasizes yang over yin  — doing over being — no matter what the season, it doesn’t take much to tip the balance.

To help you make the most of this active, vibrant season while still feeling exuberant yourself, I offer four tips:

  • Begin the day with gratitude.  What do you appreciate about your life right now, without doing a thing?
  • Schedule in unstructured time.  Yes, I’m encouraging you somewhat ironically to plan to be spontaneous. Doing what feels right in the moment is one of the virtues of the Fire element.
  • Take time to be alone.  Some people need this more than others, but even the most natural extroverts need time to connect with themselves in order to connect authentically with others.
  • Balance your active, productive, busy yang schedule by adding yin items to your “to do” list.  Anything restful, quiet, and peaceful qualifies.  I suggest actually writing in the yin elements of your schedule.  Putting a check mark next to “sit outside and appreciate the flowers” helps to satisfy the need to accomplish something while ensuring that what you’re accomplishing actually leads to feelings of joy, rather than burnout.

May you enjoy the season to the fullest!