Dr. David Servan-Schreiber (1961 - 2011)

Obituary of Dr. David-Servan Schreiber
By Victoria B. Bjorklund

Dr. David Servan-Schreiber, a psychiatrist, MSF volunteer, and best-selling author who wrote about fighting cancer, died of brain cancer at age 50.

David volunteered with Médecins Sans Frontières in Iraq in 1991, traveling through the mountains with Kurdish refugees fleeing from the wrath of Saddam Hussein. He later wrote how that experience of seeing so many people suffering day after day woke him up to what he could do back at his hospital in Pittsburgh as a young and ambitious doctor.

Before his diagnosis, David enjoyed riding motorcycles and smoking Turkish cigarettes, counting on the “French paradox” to protect his health. He also served energetically as one of the founding directors of MSF USA, joining me and others on its fledgling board of directors in 1992 and later volunteering on MSF missions in Guatemala, Tajikistan, India, and Kosovo. The organization was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1999 during David’s period of active service.

As a rising star of American psychiatry in the early 1990s, David was a co-developer with two other University of Pittsburgh researchers of testing brain activity by MRI scans. To support its young researchers, the University of Pittsburgh hospital allowed them to use its MRI scanners in the late evenings to map the brain activity of “guinea pig” students who would lie in the scanners executing challenging mental puzzles.

When one such test subject failed to show up for his late-night scan, David agreed to take his place in the machine. That scan was to be a personal turning point for all of them when his research colleagues brought David the grim news that they had discovered a walnut-sized tumor in his prefrontal cortex. He was diagnosed with brain cancer at age 31.

David received conventional treatment for his brain cancer and the cancer went into remission, only to return. After his second surgery and chemotherapy, David asked his oncologist for advice to avoid a relapse. He reported being told, “There is nothing special to do. Live your life normally….If your tumor comes back, we’ll detect it early.”

Unconvinced by this answer, David began years of progressive research that led him to believe that the body’s natural defenses have a critical role in battling against cancer and can be used in support of established medical treatments. These beliefs led to David writing the books titled Healing Without Freud or Prozac, Instinct to Heal in the U.S., and his masterwork Anticancer: A New Way of Life, which was translated into 35 languages with over 1 million copies in print and recognition as a New York Times best-seller.

Through these books, David communicated his increasingly developed conviction in integrative approaches to the prevention and treatment of cancer. Rejecting his former habits, he focused on a healthy diet and lifestyle, including exercise, yoga, vegetables, green tea and avoidance of inflammatory foods.

When his cancer returned a third time, the tumor he called "The Big One," he reflected on the extra years he was convinced that these lifestyle changes had afforded him, writing that death was also a part of life in his final book, We Can Tell Each Other Goodbye Several Times, co-authored with Ursula Gauthier and published in June 2011.

David was born in Neuilly-Sur-Seine, the eldest of three sons of the French journalist and author, Jean-Jacques Servan-Schreiber, who died in 2006 and whom David admired tremendously. He said that telling his father he had brain cancer was like "plunging a dagger into his heart."

David died listening to Mozart in a hospital near Fécamp, Normandy, France on 24 July, 2011. He is survived by his mother, the former Sabine Becq de Fouquiéres; three brothers, Franklin, Emile and Edouard; his wife Gwenaëlle; and three children.

Dr. David Servan-Schreiber, psychiatrist, MSF volunteer, and author, born 21 April 1961; died 24 July 2011.

Ms. Bjorklund served with Dr. Servan-Schreiber on the board of MSF USA and was his guest at his last U.S. lecture before the diagnosis of his third tumor.

Dr. David Servan-Schreiber's memoir: Not the Last Goodbye: On Life, Death, Healing, and Cancer.