Final Analysis: David Servan-Schreiber

A neuropsychiatrist on how he cheated death and beat cancer—twice.

By Jay Dixit, published on March 1, 2009 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

David Servan-Schreiber was 31 when his world imploded. Ambitious and arrogant, he was a founding member of Doctors Without Borders and a rising star in neuropsychiatry. When a volunteer for a brain scan experiment failed to show up, he slid into the scanner himself—and discovered a potentially lethal tumor deep in his brain. After surgery and chemotherapy, he continued life as before, eating a diet high in red meat and sugar, exercising little, and abandoning an earlier interest in meditation. When the tumor returned a few years later, he used his medical training to explore how best to prevent cancer. His discoveries led to remission—and a best-selling book called Anticancer: A New Way of Life.

How did you feel when you first saw on the brain scan that you had a tumor?

That this was not in the plans at all. That I'd spent my life preparing for a future that would not exist. My mind just stopped.

What did you do that mattered most for your health?

I got surgery and chemotherapy and radiotherapy, and that saved my life. Still, I do firmly believe it would not have been enough. I know a lot of people who had the same tumor I had who are dead today. The things I did on the side played an extraordinarily important role.

Is our default state to develop cancer?

Yes—100 percent of people have cancer cells in their bodies after the age of 50.

Did being a doctor give you an advantage over an ordinary patient?

Huge. I knew how much my colleagues did not know. When they said it doesn't matter what you eat, I knew they didn't know. I'd given this stock answer to people myself, not knowing what I was saying. Nobody invites physicians to a course on the benefits of yoga, jogging, broccoli, and garlic.

In the conventional model, we turn over our health to doctors.

Physicians do very little to help your body do its part to fight the disease. They target the tumor but don't support the terrain. People need to know they can go further.

How should we handle our own health?

Physicians believe that most people do not want to change. But certainly I was quite willing to change. It's hard for me to imagine I'm the only one.

How should we manage stress?

Physical exercise: Jogging three times a week has the same effectiveness as an antidepressant, but much more lasting benefits. Plus yoga, qigong, or meditation—the so-called relaxation response.

Some people feel getting cancer was the best thing that ever happened to them.

Part of me wishes I'd never had cancer, but part of me feels it was a second birth. I'm now more grateful, appreciative, friendly, energetic, enthusiastic, aware, and happy.

Who would you be today if you hadn't gotten cancer?

I don't want to misjudge the young man I was. Maybe he'd have wised up anyway.