David Servan-Schreiber, MD, PhD's Excellent New Book Gets Panned By the New York Times for Citing “Anecdotal” Evidence
Posted Oct 22 2008 3:52pm
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.
Nor does Dr. Zuger seem to notice that, even after enduring surgeries, radiation and chemotherapy, Dr. Servan-Schreiber’s mind is still obviously sharp as a tack. That, I can tell you from personal experience (my husband was a 15-year brain tumor survivor), is a mighty achievement. (Of course, Dr. Zuger would probably consider my personal assessment to be inconsequential –- even “anecdotal” -- as well.)
Saying that Dr. Servan-Schreiber is “like all the best pitchmen,” who “offers his own story of redemption as testament (he once was lost but now is found, was blind but now he sees),” she goes on to insult him further, asserting that:
For each of the foods on his anticancer shopping list there is a shred of scientific evidence — usually from experiments done on cells in culture, sometimes from studies of mice with cancer, and occasionally from small studies on actual human beings. For none is there the kind of data that would support, say, the licensing of a new drug.
As I described in my posting, Big Pharma’s deceptive practices include:
• “ R igging” the so-called studies, which they themselves fund
• H iding the results of the studies that actually prove their products don’t work, while – at the same time
• H eavily publicizing the studies that demonstrate their products’ successes
• H iring the researchers to conduct the studies, making it very clear to them exactly what kinds of results they are expecting the studies to show
• H iring writers to write the articles that appear in the medical journals the doctors read, and also
• H iring big name doctors to affix their names to these studies, while doing very little, if any, of the writing.
But Dr. Zuger doesn't seem to be aware of the downside of medical “testing.” Just as relevant, she seems to be oblivious to the real facts about the medical testing of natural substances –- including the reasons why there are so few reliable studies. As Dr. Servan-Schreiber points out in AntiCancer: “it is not financially feasible to invest such sums in demonstrating the usefulness of broccoli, raspberries, or green tea, because they can’t be patented and their sale will never cover the cost of the original investment.”
But to insinuate that Dr. Servan-Schreiber doesn't cite reputable studies in AntiCancer is blatantly unfair, and insulting. Even though, for the above reason, the studies he cites are not randomized, double-blind studies, they certainly are credible studies, performed by reputable researchers. Three examples:
(a) to back up his assertion that cancer cells feed on sugar, Dr. Servan-Schreiber points to a joint American-Canadian study carried out by Harvard researcher, Susan Hankinson, ScD. (p. 63)
(b) a study conducted at the Karolinska Institute of Stockholm backs up his assertion that green tea has anti-cancer properties with (p. 97)
(c) he cites the work of M.D. Anderson researcher, Professor Bharat Aggarwal, PhD, on the anti-cancer properties of curcumin (pp. 104-105). I would hardly agree that these studies contain only “a shred” of evidence.
Dr. Servan-Schreiber's statement that, although he would like to see public institutions and foundations finance human studies on the anticancer benefits of food, “still I am convinced there is no need to wait for such large-scale results before beginning to include anticancer food in one’s diet,” seems very sound to me (p. 115), as it most probably would to a large segment of the population. After all, is eating a healthy diet really so controversial? Apparently so, according to Dr. Zuger.
I am reminded of a wonderful quote attributed to Dr. Servan-Schreiber, in an article about him, “Our natural instinct to heal” in the July/August 2006 issue of Ode Magazine:
You have to have a medical degree to be brainwashed enough to believe that food does not have a major impact on physical and emotional health. For most people, its importance goes completely without saying. Nonetheless, during my studies I only spent four days learning about nutrition: We learned that eating too much makes you fat, that too much salt gives you high blood pressure, that you should eat less sugar if you have diabetes and that if you have high cholesterol you need to cut down on fat. This is where the teachings on nutrition ended, despite the fact that the World Health Organization (WHO) now states that the No. 1 cause of death worldwide is chronic illness. And what is the main reason behind chronic illness? Poor nutrition.
Perhaps Dr. Zuger should heed these words, before she reviews any other books on subjects relating to “alternative” medicine or nutrition -- two areas she so obviously knows very little about.
I strongly recommend Dr. Servan-Schreiber’s book for anyone who has cancer now, has a friend or relative with cancer, or who might get cancer in his or her lifetime. In other words, I highly recommend this book to everyone who cares about health!
This time, the New York Times failed to publish "all the news that's fit to print."