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Spring/Summer 2012

Honor Thy Body

Date: May 14, 2012

David Agus

If David Agus seems less than concerned about offending the medical establishment, it’s because he has other priorities. Indeed, with society plagued by obesity, cancer, heart disease, and any number of other life-threatening conditions, Agus is much less interested in playing politics than in changing a cycle that he believes not only promotes disease but prevents everyone from living up to their healthiest potential.

The ideas behind Agus’ The End of Illness, which jumped to No. 1 on the New York Times Bestsellers list this spring, began germinating more than two decades ago during his time as a Osler intern and resident at Johns Hopkins Hospital in the early 1990s. “This was an evolution of more than 20 years since leaving Hopkins and watching people with cancer and studying disease through them,” Agus says during a phone interview from a hotel in Arizona—another stop on his book tour. “The idea of looking at disease as a complex system is an evolution of my maturity as a physician.”    

Which is probably why The End of Illness seems like more than a book about preventing and treating disease: It’s Agus’ manifesto, espousing not only his philosophy about disease and how to prevent and treat it, but also what it means to be in good health and how to achieve it. “What’s healthy for one person may not be for someone else,” Agus writes. Part of defining and achieving good health, he writes, requires that people develop their own metrics for what constitutes their good health and then live up to them. Like disease and the body itself, he says, health becomes a system of checks and balances.

“I look at people every day and have to tell them, ‘I’ve run out of drugs to treat your cancer,’” says the oncologist whose celebrity patient roster has included Lance Armstrong and the late Steve Jobs. “I don’t want to do that anymore. Putting together a book like this was something I felt obligated to do. We have to prevent cancer.”

Like Jobs and Armstrong, Agus himself is something of a rock star in his field. (In fact, among numerous other awards, he was the recipient of GQ Magazine’s Rock Star of Science award.) A professor of medicine and engineering at the University of Southern California Keck School of Medicine and Viterbi School of Engineering, he also heads USC’s Westside Cancer Center and its Center for Applied Molecular Medicine.

Anyone without Agus’ impressive credentials and track record might struggle to convince readers to take seriously many of the recommendations in The End of Illness. Multivitamins, for instance, may be increasing our risk of cancer, he writes. Sitting down most of the day—even after a strenuous morning workout—can be as dangerous (possibly more so) to the body as smoking. Meanwhile, Agus writes, a regular regimen of statins and aspirin can substantially improve health. And sources of daily inflammation—such as uncomfortable stiletto heeled shoes—could increase the risk of heart attack.

Agus also implies that further time spent on pharmaceutical research might be in vain. “I think we have all the drugs we need,” Agus says. “Figuring out how to use them appropriately is the next step.”

Since its January release, Agus’ book has received glowing reviews from a range of luminaries including Armstrong, former vice president Al Gore, and Michael Dell, founder and chief executive officer of Dell, Inc. But Agus also has his share of detractors—medical providers and patients alike—who discount many of the book’s claims as reckless. Still Agus’ ideas, particularly that of a systemic approach to viewing the human body and disease, seem to be catching on.

Health recommendations aside, Agus spends much of his book encouraging readers to take charge of their own well-being through a variety of means, including a personal assessment survey, having a genetic profile taken, and attending doctor’s appointments armed with as many questions and as much knowledge as possible.

“So much of this is the responsibility of the patient,” Agus says. “We have to push from the ground up. I want patients to be part of the process.”  Lauren Glenn