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Exercise against Cancer
By David Servan-Schreiber, MD, PhD,
Author of Anticancer: A New Way of Life

Physical activity, even just walking 30 minutes six times a week, confers a very important protection against cancer, before we get the disease, or during its treatment. Jacqueline discovered this for herself. To her astonishment.
Physical activity acts on many of the biological factors that can slow down cancer growth. It reduces blood sugar and insulin peaks. It reduces fat stores from which common chemicals leak into our body. It reduces estrogen stimulation. And it even stimulates our immune system's ability to fight disease.

Some hospitals now systematically prescribe exercise along with chemotherapy. Not only to combat cancer directly, but also to reduce the common fatigue that affects most patients under treatment.

Jacqueline was fifty-four when she found out she had a rare cancer of the fallopian tube. Her physician told her frankly that her chances for survival were slim, but that they would try every possible treatment. After surgery she started six months of chemotherapy to limit the risk of metastases. But her oncologist didn't stop there.

Though some of his colleagues didn't fully "believe" in it, the scientific data about the importance of exercise seemed compelling to him. "Jacqueline," he said, "This may be a little hard, but when you begin chemotherapy, you'll also have to exercise." He recommended a karate club that specialized in looking after cancer patients.

In the class, the young master pointed out that she was standing bent over, looking down at the floor. Jacqueline examined herself in the mirror and saw that she had taken on the look of a "little old woman." Standing at her side, the master then demonstrated the striking motions and the traditional shout, the "kaï," rising from the inner reaches of his body. Jacqueline thought "this isn't for me!" She had never fought in her life, not even to say "no" to her family or friends, who had long taken advantage of her.  But, by the end of the first session, she had pushed and pulled on her body in ways she hadn't known were possible. She had struck the air with her hands and her feet. She had shouted. She had sensed her strength. The most surprising was that thanks to this physically grueling session, she felt herself perk up.

She persisted through the six cycles of chemotherapy, attending classes twice a week. Her exhaustion was sometimes so great that she had visions of death. On the way to the club, in the subway, she was often nauseated. Or she would have trouble standing up straight. But she didn't give up. In the end, after each session she was less tired than before it began.

Four and a half years after her initial diagnosis, her oncologist told her she was free of disease. Surviving her type of cancer was extremely rare and meant that the disease had been vanquished. But her new physical relationship to her body had become a way of keeping the disease at bay. Twice a week, in her white kimono, she takes up the posture of combat. She stands straight, her gaze steady. She hears herself saying firmly to the ghost of her cancer, "Let's have it out," in case it should have the vaguest thought of returning.

©2008 David Servan-Schreiber, MD, PhD

Author Bio
David Servan-Schreiber, MD, PhD, is a clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine and cofounder of the Center for Integrative Medicine. He lives in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and Paris, France.  He has been a cancer survivor for 16 years, and is the author of the International Best-Seller Anticancer: A New Way of Life, coming from Viking September 2008.