We all live with myths that undermine our capacity to fight cancer."
–David Servan-Schreiber MD, PhD
By Devra Davis PhD, MPH
With the death of David Servan-Schreiber, the world has lost a bright light, his young children have lost a father, I have lost a dear friend and wonderful colleague, and Environmental Health Trust has lost its first board member. A man of immense Gallic charm and daunting brilliance, his brain cancer at age 31 was picked up by an experimental study and set the course of the rest of his life. For close to two decades, David managed to save his own life and changed those who knew him. Having undergone state of the art surgery and treatment for his brain tumor, he applied his brilliant scientific mind to identifying the best nutritional and other programs to keep cancer in abeyance.
His best-selling block-buster books were unusually personal–sharing his own pain, frustrations and successes as he navigated the confusing world of integrative treatments. A founder of the Center for Integrative Medicine at the University of Pittsburgh, as a psychiatrist, researcher and brain tumor survivor, David really walked the talk. When he turned those penetrating dark eyes on you, you knew you were in the presence of greatness.
Ultimately David took risks in revealing his personal journey through his books that changed how the disease is viewed and treated. Scorned by some in the French and American medical establishments, he was proud that leaders at M.D. Anderson were taking his ideas seriously. His interests ranged from the healing power of the deep slow breath and green tea to the latest advances in therapeutic radiation and immuno-therapy–subjects he introduced to millions through his best-selling books published in forty languages.
In the past few years, in addition to his pioneering research on nutritional and other interventions, he joined with Ronald B. Herberman, MD and me, to tackle the dangers of cellphone radiation, a subject he addressed in the preface to my book, Disconnect. David and I spoke often about the mistaken presumptions and misleading conclusions of negative studies, like the one just published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute that examined children ages 7-19 and asked about whether cellphone use up to 2008 could account for brain tumors. We both understood, he much more personally than I, that brain cancers usually take a decade to arise. Of course, such studies find nothing. But far more troubling is the work of Prof. Lennart Hardell that shows that those who begin using cellphones as teenagers have quadrupled risks of brain tumors within a decade.
In the preface, he wrote of our dinner one lovely evening in Pittsburgh, where he first learned of the potential dangers of cellphones. When he answered a call with his cellphone held directly next to his brain, I practically leaped out of my seat. The conversation we began then never ended—til now. It led ultimately to the founding of EHT, with his enthusiastically telling me he would be our first board member, and to a collaboration that was always invigorating and challenging. A demanding scientist, when David looked at the remarkable array of studies on the capacity of cellphones to cause biological damage, and the paltry nature of research underway, he recognized that there was a state of denial that extended to the top tiers of science in many nations.
After his surgery for glioma last summer, we met in August at his Paris home and spoke with excitement about how the issue had morphed from a fringe concern to a serious matter in many countries. He wanted to know all about what had happened in California where efforts had advanced to promote a right to know about microwave radiation from phones. He had started talked with Orange—a large French telecom firm—and felt there was a new receptivity to prevention based policies.
Just three weeks before his tumor was diagnosed, David had visited with German researchers conducting state of the art studies of vaccines to treat brain tumors–a treatment he ended up using. As a savvy cancer patient, he appreciated that hope remained the most powerful drug, but he also understood what he faced.
Working with experts in the field, we had created a number of expert statements about the need to take precautions in using cellphones that appeared in major publications ranging from the International Herald Tribune to a number of magazines appearing in many other languages. When the World Health Organization affirmed those views in its recent expert report in May of 2011, the relief was palpable. That work, like the body of research and popular writing and video interviews David produced, leaves a lasting and powerful message about the value of taking preventive steps and ensuring that cellphones not become the next cigarette. One of the last publications David contributed to is EHT’s two-sided pamphlet, produced as part of the Global Campaign for Safer Cell Phones Physicians' Advice to Patients and Their Families.
We can no longer walk in David’s shadow, learn his newest ideas, or hear tough criticisms of research results. But the shadow David has cast extends throughout the world thanks to the broad reach of his writings and his own strong and clear sense of what needs to be done to promote environmental wellness inside and out.