Eldering Cancer Cells

“May this be the end of your fight with cancer!” wrote a friend in a recent email. Referring to health treatment in the language of warfare, no matter how well meant, makes me profoundly uncomfortable. It runs counter to the basic beliefs I’ve used to successfully manage my own health all these years, and to the course Richard and I are taking with his brain cancer. We don’t see this journey as a fight because to battle cancer is to fight ourselves at the deepest level: our own cells.

Cancer cells are indeed us. They’re simply our cells with a random “error,” a mutation that can cause the cells to begin dividing uncontrollably and thus become cancerous tumors. These mutated cells are found in every human body by the time we are in our thirties. They’re not “foreigners” invading, they’re our own tissue. Cancer is “our own creation” (albiet unintentional), as Terry Tempest Williams writes in her memoir, Refuge, An Unnatural History of Family and Place.

What philosophy are we using to manage Richard’s brain cancer? We’re drawing on his body’s “natural wisdom,” as he puts it, to encourage and support his basic good health and to make his body an inhospitable place for tumors to grow. I think of it as “eldering” his cancer cells.


Eldering is a word Quakers use to refer to the practice of giving guidance, correction, or teachings on matters of Quaker life, whether spiritual or temporal. Eldering is a matter of applying wisdom, not weapons; it’s about being gentle and thoughtful, not causing unnecessary or inappropriate harm.

What does it mean to “elder” one’s cancer? As we’re applying the metaphor, it means that we’re working to support his immune system and bolster its ability to shift unhealthy activity in his body in the direction of continuing health. We’re using a variety of “tools”: medicines and supplements, foods, exercise, imagery, and meditation. 

This approach is inspired by the work of David Servan-Schreiber, physician, neuroscientist, and brain cancer survivor. He advocates a wholistic approach based on making the basic “terrain” of one’s body and life–inner and outer–healthy. Servan-Schreiber does not discount the value of western medicine in dealing with cancer. In his book AntiCancer, a New Way of Life, he synthesizes a body of scientific research on how diet, lifestyle, and emotional and spiritual health can make one’s terrain inhospitable to cancer.

For Richard, what does this all mean?

For starters, he’s taking a homeopathic remedy that in a small-scale review by researchers at the MD Anderston Cancer Center got great results with his sort of brain tumors. The most common side effect of this combination of Ruta graveolens, common rue or herb-of-grace, a perennial plant native to southern Europe, and calcium phosphate, is beneficial: it increases white blood cell counts. In other words, unlike most chemotherapy drugs, Ruta is actually good for your immune system.


Another important part of the “eldering” approach is a diet high in the kinds of plant chemicals that suppress inflammation and cancer activity, and bolster immune health, and low in sugars and refined carbohydrates. So he’s eating broccoli or another Crucifer (a plant belonging to the mustard family, such as cabbage or cauliflower) every day for the sulphorophanes, phytochemicals that act as potent anticancer, antidiabetic, and antimicrobial agents.

Along with a serving of cruciferous vegetables, his daily diet includes turmeric (the yellow coloring in most curry powders), which comes from the root of a plant in the ginger family and contains curcumin, another phytochemical with powerful antianflammitory effects useful in preventing cancer, as well as Alzheimer’s disease, Crohn’s Disease, and rheumatoid arthritis. Other beneficial spices in his daily diet include cinnamon and ginger.

Our diet has gone from pretty healthy to super-healthy: we eat almost all organic foods, and consume mostly whole grains, vegetables and fruits, eggs, dairy and fish, with very little meat. (Which does not mean, I would like to point out as chief cook, that our food is boring; on the contrary!)

The eldering approach also relies on daily exercise, which for Richard means our morning half-hour of yoga and a mellow afternoon session on his Nordic Trak; as well as on meditation to heal his brain and nurture his spirit.

In sum, we’re simply making sure he’s healthy inside and out. That seems like a good approach for anyone, anywhere. Perhaps we should all take it as a prescription.