Would you stop eating red meats and dairy products and switch to a largely vegetarian diet if you thought it would save your life? Financier Michael Milken did in 1993, after doctor’s diagnosed advanced prostate cancer and gave him 12 to 18 months to live. One of the most compelling points regarding Milken’s diagnosis, at age 46, is that it came only after he insisted on getting a prostate-specific antigen (PSA) test. His doctor initially told Milken that he was too young to be at risk. “Humor me,” Milken said. Fortunately, his doctor did. As Milken notes, “Other than skin cancer, prostate cancer is the most common cancer in American men.” The American Cancer Society’s latest estimates for prostate cancer in the United States state that:
- About 240,890 new cases of prostate cancer will be diagnosed this year.
- About 33,720 men will die of prostate cancer this year.
It’s also worth noting that about 1 man in 6 will be diagnosed with prostate cancer during his lifetime. More than 2 million men in the United States who have been diagnosed with prostate cancer at some point are still alive today. Prostate cancer is the second leading cause of cancer death in American men, behind only lung cancer, and about one man in 36 will die of prostate cancer.
Almost 20 years after his terminal diagnosis, Milken is living proof that early testing for PSA is a wise decision, and that a health-enhancing dietary change can be highly beneficial. Milken’s dramatic recovery, however, involved far more than eating primarily low-fat plant foods. His urologist, Stuart (Skip) Holden, MD, put him on androgen-deprivation therapy, which involved taking two pills three times a day, plus a monthly injection to deprive cancer cells of the male hormones they need to multiply. This therapy reduced his PSA levels over the course of several months to zero. Milken also chose to undergo eight weeks of radiation therapy. Subsequent scans showed the swelling in his lymph nodes had disappeared. His cancer was in remission and remains so to this day.
There’s more to his healing narrative, for Milken recognized that his prostate cancer may have developed as a result of a decades-long grueling work schedule, high stress levels, meat-heavy diet, and too little exercise. As a result, he began reading evidence-based medical research on how specific nutrients, exercise and other lifestyle modifications may help slow prostate cancer, and he started making adjustments based on the research he read.
Following his diagnosis, Milken and his wife Lori began researching aspects of holistic medicine. Their inquiries took them to the Maharishi Ayurveda Health Center in Lancaster, Massachusetts. This Berkshire Mountains facility treats people with therapies sourced from India’s three thousand year-old healing tradition of Ayurveda.
Here, the Milkens experienced Ayurvedic “herbal cures and relaxation,” he writes in The Taste for Living Cookbook,” co-authored with his personal and corporate chef, Beth Ginsberg. According to the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM), Ayurveda is defined as a “whole medical system.” The NIH defines a whole medical system as “a complete system of theory and practice that has evolved over time in different cultures and apart from conventional medicine.” For more information on Ayurveda, log onto http://nccam.nih.gov/health/ayurveda/introduction.htm.
Intrigued by their initial experience of Ayurvedic healing, the Milkens arranged for a doctor trained in Western and Ayurvedic medicine to move into their home for a few months. “Early in the morning and late at night,” Milken recounts in Geoffrey E. Moore’s book, A Call to Action, he worked on “breathing techniques, herbal therapy, meditation and yoga.” The Milkens also learned how massage can activate the body’s T-cells, which fight cancer, and that aromatherapy can energize the immune system. In addition to traveling to China to meet with what Milken calls “chi” doctors, he met with integrative physicians such as Deepak Chopra, MD. “I felt it was important to connect the mind with the body,” he notes in A Call to Action.
While Milken’s triumph over advanced prostate cancer is inspiring, even more so are the medical philanthropies he founded while he was battling the disease. In 1993, Milken used his still formidable energy and will to establish the prostate cancer charity CaP CURE, now called the Prostate Cancer Foundation (PCF). Milken is also heavily involved in another foundation that he established called FasterCures (www.fastercures.org), a Washington, DC-based non-profit that creates action plans to speed scientific discovery for remedies to all major diseases.
CaP CURE and the Prostate Cancer Foundation came into existence after Milken discovered from consulting with influential researchers and bio-tech leaders such as Gordon Binder, then-CEO of Amgen, that prostate cancer ranked low on the national research agenda. Undaunted, Milken resolved to change the slow-motion pace of prostate cancer research, raise the disease’s public profile and catalyze a movement to increase funding for prostate cancer research while accelerating the awarding of grant monies to researchers. Toward that end, the Milken Family Foundation committed $25 million over five years to the PCF and later renewed with a second $25 million commitment. Equally important, the PCF (www.pcf.org/) established a revolutionary and streamlined awards process which limits applications to five pages, and funds approved research applications within the comparatively rapid span of 90 days.
As Andrew von Eschenbach, formerly the director of the National Cancer Institute and a past director of the United States Food and Drug Administration, puts it, “Michael Milken changed the culture of medical research. He created a sense of urgency that focused on results and shortened the timeline,” he continues. “It took a business mindset to shake things up. What he has done is now the model.” (Dr. von Eschenbach has helped grow the Prostate Cancer Foundation since 1993 by serving on its Board and as a scientific advisor.) He also founded C-Change (www.c-changetogether.org), a forum that unites leaders of national cancer organizations that is in partnership with the Prostate Cancer Foundation.
While working to enhance medical research into prostate cancer, Milken continually saw how no one was trying to leverage the enormous political power of the millions of Americans with cancer and their families to change the so-called “war” on cancer. In 1998, the PCF took a leading role in organizing “The March: Coming Together to Conquer Cancer.” In September 1998, 150,000 people representing 600 cancer organizations gathered on the National Mall in Washington to demand increased federal funding for cancer research. Hundreds of thousands more rallied in 200 cities across the US. In the five years after The March, federal funding of cancer research increased nearly 70%.
In 2003, Milken launched FasterCures, a Washington, DC, based center of the Milken Institute that is creating action plans to shorten the path of scientific discovery for all major diseases. The mission of FasterCures is to improve the process of medical research, prevention, and regulatory science.
Geoffrey E. Moore, who provides communications counsel to Michael Milken and his foundations, notes that clearly, care is an important issue since it accounts for 97% of health spending, but Milken’s most intense focus “is on the other 3%, or what some call the health cure system.” According to Moore, Milken “…believes that we will never be able to afford the rising costs of care if our nation continues to shy away from funding development of new cures.” Considering the dire economic times we are weathering, Milken says, “The greatest long-term stimulus we can provide our economy will come from better prevention and from medical science. So let’s set our priorities. For example,” he continues, “for just half the cost of an aircraft carrier, we can double scientific investigations into heart disease.”
Milken’s argument in favor of more investment in medical research becomes even more compelling when we consider the routinely hefty expenditures made for products that provide dubious returns on investment. “National political campaigns in 2008 cost $5.3 billion,” Milken explains. “Interestingly, Americans also spend $5.3 billion a year on potato chips. Potato chips! Nearly double the federal budget for heart-disease research. More than the National Cancer Institute budget. Improved public health translates directly into greater national productivity, which underpins all economic growth.