Like a lot of people, I’ve watched too many friends, family members, and acquaintances deal with cancer. Breast cancer, cervical cancer, lung cancer, Hodgkin’s, leukemia. Most have won their battles for now, suffering bravely through treatment — chemotherapy, radiation, surgery, or all of the above — and have become survivors. But sadly, others have not. Despite being observer to this process all too often, it has always been difficult for me to wrap my head around it all.
This is part of what attracted me to Siddhartha Mukherjee’s book The Emperor of All Maladies, which traces the “biography” of cancer from the first documented case thousands of years ago through to the present day. He beautifully details how our understanding and treatment of cancer has evolved over time, where science and medicine have failed us (and each other) and where they have succeeded, and what the future may look like. Thoughtfully interspersed throughout the book are case studies of his own oncology patients, lending a human face to the historical and scientific examination. Although not a quick read by any means (it took me several months to finish), I was constantly impressed with the masterful way that Mukherjee weaved together these different narratives. Even his descriptions of the cellular biology of cancer are elegant and approachable!
One of the key messages that will stick with me is that no cancer is alike — all forms of cancer have different mechanisms, different triggers, different weaknesses, and different potentials for a treatment or cure. Even within the same form of cancer, these things sometimes differ too. It’s really no wonder that treating cancer patients has seemed like a shot in the dark for so long. I was also unbelievably frustrated to read about the lack of communication between the scientists conducting research and the medical community treating patients, resulting in treatments that don’t always reflect the current state of knowledge in the field.
Even so, Mukherjee tries to bring the book to a close with a hopeful look towards the future, focusing on prevention and preciser treatments informed by our own genetic material. I appreciate his optimism, but after reading about cancer’s course over the last few thousand years, I’m not sure we’re quite there yet.
The Emperor of Maladies is a really a book unlike any other that I’ve read — engaging in a way I never expected such a dense topic could be. It really is a must-read, and absolutely worth the time and energy.
Have you read The Emperor of Maladies too? What are your thoughts? What books are on your must-read list?
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