Here’s an unhappy personal fact: A few years ago, my father died of cancer not long after his father died of cancer. Soon after that, two of my father’s three brothers died of cancer, and this July my own brother was diagnosed as well. That leaves me feeling like I’ve got an oncological bull’s-eye painted on my back in carcinogenic ink.
Not to put too fine a point on it, but in recent years, a whole lot of medical ugly in my world has made cancer impossible to personally ignore. It isn’t knocking at my door. It’s barged in, sat down, grabbed the remote, and stolen the popcorn bowl. Thinking it could never happen to me is no longer a viable option.
So what do I think instead? Along the way to figuring that out, I discovered a book called Anticancer, by Dr. David Servan-Schreiber, which anyone who has cancer, knows someone who does, or wants to avoid it themselves must read right now.
Its core idea is pretty simple: Every human body creates cancer cells. But not everybody gets cancer. Why? The answer is surprising: Because cancer mostly only comes when we let it.
Now that’s obviously not always true. In some cases, we are predisposed and perhaps even predestined to get cancer. But genetics, it turns out, is a bit player in this medical drama. At most, Dr. Servan-Schreiber tells us, just 15% of all cancer mortality is due to what’s in our genes. The rest is essentially up to us.
The evidence strongly suggests that the real reason we fall into cancer’s clutches is because we diligently work against our bodies’ efforts to kill it. We eat nutritionally vacant garbage and live stressful, sedentary lives in environments filled with toxins. It finally all becomes altogether all too much for our systems to bear.
To a shocking degree, the book echoes my own wholly unsubstantiated personal theory that the body is a remarkably resilient machine. Given half a chance it can overcome a crappy diet or an out-of-shape physique. It can survive stress or polluted surroundings. But I have long believed that it cannot do all these things, all the time, forever. Punish it from enough directions, and it breaks. The table can stand without a leg or two, but take them all away and it’s Humpty Dumpty time.
Yet if we at least meet our bodies halfway and, say, exercise during times of stress or eat well in a polluted world, there’s a chance that when our immune systems encounter rogue cells trying to turn into tumors, they’ll have what it takes to take those cells out.
So after spending a summer in the hospital enduring a series of unspeakable befores, durings, and afters filled with scalpels and consultations, I’m putting Dr. Servan-Schreiber’s advice to work and going on the offensive. When cancer tries to set its sights on me, as it will inevitably on all of us, I’m shooting for bulletproof. Will it work? Let’s just say I’m hoping. But at least if it doesn’t, I’ll know I did what I could.
Dr. Servan-Schreiber tells us that there is a cancer epidemic in the industrialized world. Its causes are many, and the war against it must be fought on many fronts. Some involve government. Some involve business. But the most important involves only ourselves and the decisions we make. We are sick largely because we ourselves have made it so. It’s time to change that. A healthy world can only come from healthy people. Let us be those people. Our future, both alone and together, is counting on it.