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In Memory of Dr. Servan-Schreiber

While I was talking to a doctor I met at my summer job, she brought up another doctor who did some interesting research about acupuncture. This gave me the idea to write about acupuncture in my previous article, and I later asked her who this doctor was. She said his name is David Servan-Schreiber, and she pulled out his Wikipedia page. As I looked through his biography, his experience with cancer, and the opinions he expressed through his books, I decided it would be very interesting to dedicate an article in memory of him. And it’s a coincidence that I am writing this article around the date that marks the tenth year he passed away (July 24, 2011 - July 23, 2021).

To summarize his professional life, Dr. Servan-Schreiber was a well-known psychiatrist and a best-selling author. He studied medicine at a children’s hospital in Paris as well as at Laval University in Quebec, and mainly developed his career in the United States, where he worked as a professor of psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh, according to nytimes. A few years later, he became a part of the French Doctors Without Borders group to volunteer as a doctor and psychiatrist during the first Persian Gulf war. As a psychiatrist, he was one of the first to step into the world of neuroscience, studying how emotions impact the brain, enhancing the branch of mental health by working on ways to deal with anxiety and depression without using drugs, stated by upmc.

Dr. David Servan-Schreiber (Wikipedia)

To list some of his accomplishments:

  • Co-founder and former director of the Center for Complementary Medicine, now called the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NIH)

  • Co-founder of the United States branch of Doctors Without Borders

  • Author of Instinct to Heal (2003)

  • Author of Healing Without Freud or Prozac (2003)

  • Author of Anticancer: A New Way of Life (2007)

For those looking to know more about his personal life, I think these two articles (1, 2) do a good job of introducing the important parts of that.

While he was volunteering with Doctors Without Borders, he traveled to different counties, China, India, Tajikistan, Kosovo, etc., and he also absorbed the natural ways people in those countries deal with diseases and mental illnesses. These ways included acupuncture, nutrition, meditation, exposure to light, etc. Combining these researches with his own studies related to the emotional brain, he wrote Healing Without Freud or Prozac, which is a book that guides people to use natural ways (non-pharmaceutical, without drugs or surgery) to overcome depression and anxiety, according to nytimes.

Dr. Servan-Schreiber was diagnosed with brain cancer at the age of 31 (in 1992). The story goes that he went into a brain scanner one day in replacement of a research subject who didn’t show up, and that scan revealed a tumor inside his brain; it was already the size of a walnut, according to upmc. He fought with cancer and everything that came along with cancer for 19 years, until he unfortunately passed away from it in 2011, through surgery, chemotherapy, and other natural ways.

How big is a walnut-sized tumor? Here’s the answer to that, courtesy of ncbi.

Tumour size chart (ncbi)

In his book Anticancer: A New Way of Life, he describes healthy lifestyles that help prevent cancer and makes the lives of people going through cancer treatment stronger. Briefly, this includes exercising and eating vegetables, olive oil, garlic, omega-3 eggs, and green tea, as published by nytimes. From his own experience, he supports that surgery, chemotherapy and other drugs are the prominent treatments of cancers. The lifestyles he advocates for are ways for the body to naturally defend itself from cancer in addition to the clinical treatments.

This link (page 2) presents the 20 detailed rules of avoiding cancer from diet and lifestyle, courtesy of upmc.

At the time of writing the book, there wasn’t yet a lot of research centered around lifestyles that are at high risks of cancer. He writes that his oncologist, despite working the hardest and trying all the possible drugs and treatments to help him, couldn’t offer a great answer when he asked about exercises or diets that he should try to heal from cancer. In Dr. Servan-Schreiber’s words, the field of oncology was “changing at breakneck speed,” and fighting cancer from a lifestyle and nutrition approach was beyond what was clinically known and proven at the time. So he decided to take matters into his own hands and research these lifestyles on his own, according to abcnews. Hence the birth of Anticancer: A New Way of Life. Thanks to his work, the idea of avoiding cancer-causing foods, and living healthy lives with a lot of exercise and a healthy diet to avoid cancer is no longer a strange and unthought-of idea to us anymore.

Here is a link to a powerful excerpt from Anticancer: A New Way of Life.

In his memoir, Not the Last Goodbye, which he wrote in 2011, knowing he had a very limited amount of time left, he wrote about living while dying, ending with dignity, and the meaning of life. His brother, Emile, commented on the book as “He wanted to use his experience as a patient himself, but also as a doctor, to show how we can all go through this process with as much dignity as possible – how to be afraid, yes, but also courageous.”, as published by theguardian. As I have not had the honour to read this book myself, penguinrandomhouse provides a synopsis of the book.

For Dr. Servan-Schreiber, I admit that writing in memory of him is a bit random compared to if I wrote in memory of Einstein or Newton, but I think he is very much worth remembering. It’s true that he didn’t provide revolutionary discoveries, but he was a hero in that he didn’t back off when faced with a disease that affects 1 in 2 Canadians, according to the Canadian Cancer Society. Instead, he found new ways for his body to fight against it, and he spent 19 years writing to let the world know. In the first half of his career in Doctors Without Borders, he also served selflessly in developing countries, and went on to expand that group by founding the United States branch of Doctors Without Borders. The field of emotions and mental health, and healing from mental conditions softly and naturally, was also a field that he brought to light. I believe he was a magnificent doctor. If you could hear me, Dr. Sercan-Schreiber, I wish you good night, sweet dream.

Article Author: Ivy Sun

Article Editors: Stephanie Sahadeo, Victoria Huang