Prescription for a long, healthy life

First aired on The Current (6/2/12)

Prominent oncologist Dr. David Agus, known for treating such high-profile clients as Lance Armstrong and Steve Jobs, believes that prevention is the key to living a long, healthy life. And he elaborates on preventive strategies in his new book, The End of Illness.

In a recent interview on The Current, Dr. Agus told host Anna Maria Tremonti: "I truly believe that people can live until their ninth or tenth decade without [serious] disease. Our goal is to prevent those diseases."

The only way to beat cancer, Dr. Agus argues, is through prevention. He pointed out that inflammation is a significant factor in increasing the risk of cancer and heart disease. "Aspirins and statins lower cholesterol, but they also block inflammation. So taking a statin every day decreases the incidence of cancer by 40 per cent," he said, adding that studies have also shown that aspirin reduces the risk of death by colon cancer by 60 per cent."

According to Dr. Agus, we haven't made much progress in treating cancer. "If you look overall at the death rate from cancer from 1950 to today, it's not dramatically down," he pointed out. The average cancer has more than a hundred mutations, which present a treatment dilemma. Dr. Agus cited a trial of breast cancer treatment as evidence of a new approach. After optimal treatment, half the women got a bone-building drug, to treat osteoporosis, and half got a placebo. "And the recurrence of the cancer was reduced by 40 per cent," he said. He likened the approach to changing the soil to avoid allowing a seed to take root.

Dr. Agus uses the term "cancering" to refer to the disease. He went on to explain: "Your body is in a state that allows cancer to grow. When I just try to treat that one cancer cell, I'm not getting the root cause which is allowing that cancer to grow. So I have to change you from a cancering state to a health state."

In his book, Dr. Agus relates the story of champion cyclist Lance Armstrong, in 1997, he was diagnosed with cancer in his brain, lung and liver, and told chemo wouldn't help him. He was treated with platinum, and that killed the cancer cells. A year and a half later, he won his first of seven Tour de France races.

Though platinum treatment was "a miracle drug" for Armstrong's cancer, Dr. Agus cautioned that it doesn't work on other kinds of the disease. In fact, he doesn't believe there will ever be a miracle drug that will cure cancer. Instead, he stresses the need for "a culture of prevention."

Inflammation is a key risk factor. Dr. Agus explained that the immune response of the body "cares about the short term, not the long term. It's trying to fix the acute thing, but the immune response has negative side effects up over time."

The preventive measures that Dr. Agus promotes include physical exercise and sticking to regular habits of eating and sleeping. An example? If you usually eat lunch at noon, your body comes to expect food at that time. Delaying until, say, two p.m. triggers stress hormones. For Dr. Agus, the question is not how often you eat or how many hours of sleep you get, but what your body gets used to.

When asked whether the emphasis on individual behaviour ignores environmental factors and implicitly puts the blame on people's lifestyle choices, Dr. Agus acknowledged that there's an environmental component to cancer, along with a genetic component. But he stresses that we have control over our environment, to some extent, in terms of what foods we eat and what medications or vitamins we take. Controlling the environment, he argues, is partly a question of "doing the right thing."

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The End of Illness

by Dr. David B. Agus

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From the publisher:

"Can we live robustly until our last breath? Do we have to suffer from debilitating conditions and sickness? Is it possible to add more vibrant years to our lives? In The End of Illness, David B. Agus, MD, one of the world's leading cancer doctors, researchers, and technology innovators, tackles these fundamental questions, challenging long-held wisdoms and dismantling misperceptions about what "health" means. With a blend of storytelling, landmark research, and provocative ideas on health, Dr. Agus presents an eye-opening picture of the human body and all of the ways it works-and fails-showing us how a new perspective on our individual health will allow each of us to achieve that often elusive but now reachable goal of a long, vigorous life...."

Read more at Simon & Schuster Canada.