Stopping cancer before it starts

Dr. Moshe Shike: “It’s important to have the confidence that you can accomplish what you are out there to do.”Like an experienced coach leading his team on a steady march towards victory, Dr. Moshe Shike combines his knowledge, strategy and …

Dr. Moshe Shike: “It’s important to have the confidence that you can accomplish what you are out there to do.”Like an experienced coach leading his team on a steady march towards victory, Dr. Moshe Shike combines his knowledge, strategy and communication skills, using them to advance towards a goal. We are all players on Shike’s team — but his objectives are not touchdowns or field goals, but long, healthy, cancer and disease-free lives for everyone.

Shike pioneered the Cancer Prevention and Wellness Program at New York’s prestigious Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in 1999 and continues to serve as the program’s director. From his modest office on First Avenue, the Iraqi-born, Israeli-raised doctor and researcher told ISRAEL21c about his work: past, present and future.

“The idea [of the Program] is to give people one place where everything that can be done to prevent cancer or detect it early is done, and that’s the innovative aspect,” Shike said.

The Program is streamlined to appeal to busy, working professionals and to make their visit as quick and hassle-free as possible. The latest clinical knowledge is incorporated into its methodology.

Participants fill out a simple questionnaire which looks at the family medical history, as well as how the patient is generally feeling. Afterwards, the visitor meets with a “wellness specialist,” a nurse who is specially trained to evaluate the patient’s needs. Depending upon the responses, the participant may be taken for cancer screening tests or be scheduled for further counseling in nutrition, smoking cessation, or possible risks associated with a patient’s genetic history. Should no further care be required, the participant is released and contacted the following year to come in for another evaluation.

Shike’s interest in cancer prevention and wellness outreach has taken him and his message to every sector of the media. He has appeared on Larry King Live, served as medical advisor for Discovery Health.com, edited an authoritative medical textbook on nutrition and co-authored a popular book on cancer prevention: Cancer Free: The Comprehensive Cancer Prevention Program.

At Memorial Sloan-Kettering, the Cancer Prevention and Wellness Program has been so successful that it has become a template for similar efforts by other hospitals in America, Europe and elsewhere. In fact, Tel Aviv’s Ichilov Hospital is among those that have sent experts to learn more from his program. This is something which gives the doctor great satisfaction, considering Shike’s lifelong bond with Israel. By his account, he shuttles back and forth between Israel and America up to four times a year.

Shike was born in Basra, Iraq and as an infant was brought by his family to Israel via Lebanon, settling in Ramat Gan. He credits growing up in Israel with giving him the spirit to achieve.

“I think you get a lot of confidence growing up in Israel and going through what Israel gives young people,” Shike said. “So all this is very important because it is imperative in research to ask the questions, be curious, and to want to be innovative. It’s important to have the confidence that you can accomplish what you are out there to do.”

Shike served as a combat medic for the Israel Defense Force during the wars of 1967 and 1973. Shortly thereafter, he graduated from Tel Aviv University Medical School and went on to do a residency in Internal Medicine at Harvard School of Medicine and a fellowship at the University of Toronto. He joined the staff of Memorial Sloan-Kettering in 1981.

Shike’s fellowship at the University of Toronto was in Nutrition and Gastroenterology; that is, the study of disorders affecting the stomach, intestines, and associated organs. And so, while Shike’s prescription for staying healthy does involve an equal measure of proactive cancer screening, exercise and the avoidance of smoking, it is perhaps when he discusses diet that he becomes the most animated.

While speaking about Israel, for example, he noted that there is much Americans could learn from aspects of the Israeli diet.

“The fact that a lot of Israelis eat salad in the morning is a wonderful thing!” exclaimed Shike. “They eat lots of fruits and vegetables… and they are fresh.”

This is no trivial matter for the doctor, who advises the consumption of at least five servings of produce as part of his wellness regimen. In Shike’s view, an apple a day, and then some, may very well keep the doctor away.

Moreover, Shike’s expertise in nutrition has instilled in him a strong conviction that a healthy diet over the course of a lifetime helps reduce the risk of cancer and other disease. He explained the results of recent clinical studies – some that he himself conducted – that failed to support the role of diet in affecting cancer rates for certain types of cancer.

“In those studies, we just changed the diet for four years, when people were already 50 and older,” He said. “You need, I believe, to start the diet at a much earlier age, and that’s when it will work.”

Shike emphasizes the role of research. Clinical studies have been an integral part of his career from the beginning. Currently, he is in the early stages of a multi-year study sponsored by the Breast Cancer Research Foundation to evaluate the effects of soy supplements in breast cancer. He has also received a grant from the National Cancer Institute to look into ways to increase access to screening colonoscopies in underserved populations.

“You see, these are populations that don’t have access to colonoscopies to screen for colon cancer,” he said, leaning forward in his seat “We have a very successful model, and we are testing it right now. This is very exciting because it is bringing in people to be screened who would otherwise not benefit from this procedure.”

Screening for cancer, and thereby catching it in its earliest stages, is one of the most effective ways of lowering the mortality rate for many of the deadliest forms of cancer, Shike explained. “There is no question that screening for colon cancer reduces mortality at least by 30 percent, and probably by 70 percent. Screening for breast and cervical cancers also cuts mortality significantly.”

It is that zeal to seek better ways to reduce the deadly impact of cancer that gives the doctor the drive to continue and expand his work, even after more than two decades on the job. What is it exactly that motivates him so?

“To make a difference in a person’s life,” Shike said, “especially in cancer, we’re dealing with [a disease that's] devastating and threaten[s] the patient’s whole world! The ability to not only do the technical things but give support to people and help them cope with their problems, to help them make good decisions and… fight, and many times win, against the disease… This is very rewarding.”