Reading some books can be a humbling experience, and if we’re lucky, an experience that lives with us long after we close the final page. Not the Last Goodbye by David Servan-Schreiber, subtitled “On Life, Death, Healing and Cancer”, is one such humbling book; a work that transcends its small size and simple but rather elegant paperback format, to leave a deep impression on the reader.
Many readers will know the author from his bestseller Anticancer: a new way of life and it’s the bitterest of ironies that this passionate and eloquent advocate of adopting certain lifestyle and nutritional practices to defeat this disease has succumbed to it himself. In reading Not the Last Goodbye published late last year, we are aware from the outset that Servan-Schreiber has lost his struggle only a few months earlier at the age of 50.
As a doctor himself, Servan-Schreiber was acutely aware of the significance of the reappearance of his aggressive brain tumour 19 years after his original diagnosis and successful operation. The book opens with his description of his reaction on hearing the news after an MRI scan in Paris; in spite of the medical advice to avoid any jolts because the huge mass occupying his frontal lobe could kill him at any time (at that stage the diagnosis wasn’t yet confirmed) Servan-Schreiber leapt on his bike to negotiate the cobblestones of Paris rather than take a taxi. The ‘bike test’ reassured him that he had the courage and determination to outwit his foe.
And his courage never falters throughout this moving book. We share with Servan-Schreiber his hopes that are alternately raised and then dashed through three operations, radiation, and experimental vaccine treatment, all conveyed with clarity and grace and totally lacking in self pity or mawkishness. It is a remarkable book and one of his key motivations was to leave a personal testament to his children. Growing into adulthood, they will be very proud.
He explains that other key motivations are to question whether the “raspberries and broccoli” approach of Anticancer is still valid, and if so, why didn’t it protect him, and, finally, how will he face death when it comes?
In answering the second question, Servan-Schreiber emphatically restates his support for healthy natural nutrition and the ‘physical exercise, yoga, meditation and stress management’ advice of his bestseller and many others like it - and recognises his own lifestyle has fallen far short of his own advice. In the months before his relapse - and spurred on by the great success of Anticancer - he crisscrossed the globe, including monthly transatlantic flights, as well as flying within France and elsewhere in Europe once or twice a week. In subjecting himself to “numerous bouts of jetlag” in the full knowledge of its impact on the immune system, he recognises both failure and responsibility. He succeeds, though, in giving us a salutary lesson on the importance of maintaining calm and balance, probably at the expense of fame and accolades. We learn of a woman called Molly with a similar devastating tumour who has defied the odds and survived for the past decade immersing herself in the almost total isolation of nature, protected as she says by “the quiet”.
Not the Last Goodbye resonates with compassion - it’s an interesting point that Servan-Schreiber recognises he has become a far more compassionate physician after his first brush with death. It radiates with love for and from his large and attentive family, his friends and colleagues, and readers whom he guides with a firm gentle hand right until the end. As David Servan-Schreiber intended, his book is anything but demoralising; it is truly inspirational.
Margaret Evans has a background in teaching, journalism and publishing. She is the editor of NOVA Holistic Journal.