When I began reading Dr. Abigail Zuger’s New York Times review of Dr. David Servan-Schreiber’s latest book, Anti-Cancer: A New Way of Life, I was at first amused when she compared it to “the finest in nighttime infomercials” that hawk (I’m really quoting her here!) kitchen gadgets and acne preparations. But my amusement soon wore off.
I was familiar with Dr. Zuger’s writings, and with Dr. Servan-Schreiber’s, so I immediately knew where she was going with this. This was, to quote Margo Channing ("All About Eve"), “going to be a bumpy ride.” If a bumpy ride was what I really wanted, I was not to be disappointed by Dr. Zuger’s stinging assessment of this very important book. But, truthfully, I would have preferred a fair and balanced review.
You see, Dr. Zuger has a well-documented bias against all treatments that don't have randomized double-blind clinical trials to back them up. In other words, all “anecdotal” treatments are, to her way of thinking, suspect. She publicly chided her own mother in the New York Times in February 2006 (“Impressive Science Meets Unimpressed Patient (Hi, Mom!)”) for not believing wholeheartedly in medical studies. And in her December 25, 2007 review of R. Barker Bausell’s book, Snake Oil Science: The Truth About Complementary and Alternative Medicine, she confidently proclaimed that those who use alternative treatments “share a single mantra: ‘I don’t care what the studies say; it works for me.’” And then she went on to say (incorrectly, I might add): “The studies — at least the good ones — say that none of these treatments work the miracles often claimed for them.” She called this book –- probably because she agrees with Bausell’s very dismissive point of view -- a “tour de force.”
So, I was not surprised that Dr. Zuger would be inclined to criticize Dr. Servan-Schreiber’s approach to treating cancer, which includes a blend of conventional and alternative treatments, including diet. Nor was I surprised that she would be suspicious of the validity of the studies he quotes in the book. (Though not double-blind randomized clinical trials, all were performed by extremely reputable researchers at respectable institutions.) But I had hoped that she would at least be open to the very measured and convincing way he presented his ideas. She wasn’t.
I find it especially surprising that Dr. Zuger wasn’t at all impressed by the fact that Dr. Servan-Schreiber is a respected medical researcher and writer. Both an MD and a PhD, as well as a clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, he has authored several books, including The Instinct to Heal: Curing Depression, Anxiety and Stress Without Drugs and Without Talk Therapy, and is also a regular contributor to Ode Magazine. But perhaps even more relevant here, Dr. Servan-Schreiber is also long-term brain tumor survivor -– approximately 14 years out, by my calculation -- who followed the standard route (surgery, chemo and radiation), only to have his cancer return. It was at this point that he began to study and use an integrative approach. And he credits his long-term survival in good part to the dietary changes he describes in his book.