Lessons in life and death

I had a very different post planned for today, but yesterday afternoon I stumbled upon a New York Times obituary for Dr. David Servan-Schreiber, who I wrote a bit about previously. Dr. Servan-Schreiber was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor at age 31, underwent the standard surgery-chemo-radiation package, experienced a recurrence of brain cancer five years later, did the standard treatment again…then began to look at alternative and integrative methods of preventing cancer, or boosting the odds of success of conventional treatment (that’s the integrative part).

The result was the wonderful book Anticancer, A New Way of Life. As someone who personally and professionally believes in the power of diet and lifestyle to affect the quality of our health (for better or for worse), this book was a valuable and thought-provoking contributor to my personal education as I prepare to begin my formal graduate studies in public health nutrition. So it’s an understatement to say I was saddened to see this cancer survivor and advocate for health die prematurely at age 50.
I hadn’t been aware that he was diagnosed anew with brain cancer last year (in May 2010). He appeared to deal with the prospect of death with grace and a healthy perspective, according to his obituary in Ode Magazine, to which he was a contributing writer. He called this final tumor “The Big One,” and said he was convinced that the lifestyle he promotes in Anticancer played important role in the fact he survived 19 years after his initial diagnosis, instead of the six years he was given as a prognosis. 
He’s probably right. Impossible to know for sure, but how could supporting the body with a healthy, nourishing lifestyle not make a difference?
As I’ve said more than once, I choose to live a healthy lifestyle partly with disease prevention in mind. I’m not fearful of disease, but I do want to enjoy robust good health for as long as possible. Good health is a lovely thing, and who wouldn’t want that for themselves? I am fully aware that habits like eating a nutritious diet, exercising every day, minimizing alcohol, limiting sun exposure and managing stress don’t provide me with a guarantee that I will never develop cancer, diabetes or heart disease. Even if I don’t get that ultimate long-term payoff that I’m hoping for, I do have the immediate payoff of looking and feeling good. I haven’t had a cold or the flu for years, and when I had to have inpatient surgery in the fall (for something that was in no way lifestyle related), I bounced back very quickly.

To my mind, living healthfully is not so much about longevity (I’m not really sure I want to live to be 100+!), but about having the best possible quality of life for as long as I am alive. I’m guessing that Dr. Servan-Schreiber enjoyed a better quality of life post-cancer once he gave up the diet colas and cans of chili that he was eating on the fly as he rushed between clinical and teaching responsibilities.

I think it’s easy to be discouraged when you’re trying to do the right thing, to reach for veggies and fruits instead of candy and chips, and then you see someone who has been “walking the walk” die before their time. I see it as a reminder that in spite of the fact that we as human beings are almost identical on so many levels, we each have a very unique biology and biochemistry. But there are so many great benefits to eating delicious healthy food, staying active and keeping body weight in a healthy range that there is no reason not to do those things.

A few months before his last diagnosis, he wrote “20 New Anticancer Rules.” Yesterday, I listened to a talk he gave at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center. It’s about 90 minutes long, and similar to the University of California talk that I mentioned here previously (this one is just under an hour). I highly recommend watching one of them. If you’d prefer something shorter, here’s one more: