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The Emperor still reigns ...

June 26, 2013 - Lee Smith
“The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer” by Siddhartha Mukherjee, a cancer physician and researcher, won a Pulitzer Prize in 2011. The book, which describes the history of cancer in clinical and personal terms, is being made into a PBS documentary by filmmaker Ken Burns. It will air in the spring of 2015.

So I bought the book, and it’s fascinating. For more reasons than the obvious. There is, of course, the story of cancer, which remains a heinous killer. But there is also this: The reason the disease is at the forefront of human fears is because we have solved the other puzzles. In 1900, people were still dying of tuberculosis and pneumonia, or malaria and cholera and typhus. Cancer is among the deadly diseases still standing. That’s good news, actually, if not necessarily reassuring.

I am also struck by a major theme of cancer research: Mavericks and outcasts have led the way, to good and bad results. Surgeons once touted radical surgery as a cure. It wasn’t. Chemotherapists and radiologists likewise followed suit. There were breakthroughs, but relapses remained common. Today, still, there are many cancers that are nearly incurable, and a cancer that spreads beyond a local site is always bad.

The book implicitly calls into question the ability of cancer researchers and doctors, at least historically, to match their proud proclamations about the ability to cure the disease. It also points out that the “War on Cancer,” pumping billions of federal dollars into the fight in the 1970s, did not meet the promise of those who said more funding for research was all that was required.

Mukherjee notes that genetic research holds out new hope, with science now better able to understad how cancer actually develops, at the molecular level. But the question remains: Will this knowledge translate to prevention, treatment and cure? And how soon?

I cannot recommend this book enough. It offers universal lessons, ties history to the present on a topic highly relevant to human beings, and is an intellectual “thriller.” In other words, it’s excellent.


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