December 21, 1998 12:00 PM

Bob Arnot rose to the challenge. When his wife, Courtney, concerned by her mother’s breast cancer diagnosis in 1992, asked him, “How do you prevent breast cancer?” NBC’s chief medical correspondent didn’t accept his own first response—”You can’t.” Recalls Arnot: “Courtney said, ‘You’re a journalist, you’re a doctor, figure it out.’ So I started to look around, and I found this evidence-based nutritional therapy.”

He also found a route to bestseller-dom—and a heap of controversy. Published in October, Arnot’s book, The Breast Cancer Prevention Diet: The Powerful Foods, Supplements, and Drugs That Can Save Your Life, offers sound advice, such as eat lots of fruits and vegetables and keep fat and alcohol intake low. “The book can save lives,” says heart-health guru Dr. Dean Ornish. “But Bob Arnot would be the last person to say that eating this diet guarantees against breast cancer.”

Still, many voices have been raised in protest. Researchers at the University of Toronto, among others, charge Arnot, 50, with overstating their preliminary findings about the effects of certain foods and nutrients on cancer. And the American Cancer Society says the book is not based entirely “on solid research,” says spokeswoman Joann Schellenbach. “There is no scientific evidence that a particular diet can prevent cancer,” an assertion seconded by doctors at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in Manhattan.

Arnot’s most vocal critic—12-year breast cancer survivor Fran Visco, president of the National Breast Cancer Coalition—insists his recommendations are not just misleading, they’re potentially dangerous. “He suggests some pretty drastic changes in diet—adding soy, fish oil and flaxseed—which haven’t been studied over the long term and could be harmful,” says Visco. If tomes like Arnot’s “make women think they have the answers,” she adds, “they’ll stop asking the questions.”

With his book—for which he interviewed over 100 experts and combed the scientific literature—now on bestseller lists around the country, Arnot takes the criticism in stride. A breast cancer prevention diet, he admits, may be “10 to 15 years off in terms of being proved. But the diet in my book is very healthy. It’s a safe bet based on current research.”

Arnot comes by his maverick tendencies naturally. The son of a Boston psychiatrist who was an early pioneer of biologically oriented therapy, Arnot got degrees in medicine and surgery from Montreal’s McGill University medical school and practiced for two years in Africa (where he still spends time working every year). He was serving as a 1980 U.S. Olympic ski team physician when ABC exec Roone Arledge saw him on TV and hired him to do sports-science commentary. Arnot became medical correspondent for CBS in 1984 and moved to NBC last year. “I’m a crusader personality,” says Arnot, who lives in Manhattan with Courtney, 38, a volunteer at Sloan-Kettering, and their two young sons. “I’m able to anticipate things, and it’s frustrating to me when others don’t see the same big picture.”

Not that his vision is always 20/20. He plans to remove misleading claims from future editions (flaxseed, for example, has been shown to reduce tumors in rats—not humans). But he’s otherwise unrepentant. “This diet is similar to the cuisine of Asia, where the incidence of breast cancer is very low,” he says. “The best argument for it is simply, why not?”

Because, says Schellenbach, while the book encourages a healthier lifestyle, “it creates a false promise.” What Arnot has proven, she adds, is that “women are hungry for information that will provide them with ways to fight breast cancer.”

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