Apr 02

The Emperor of All Maladies, A biography of Cancer, by Siddhartha Mukherjee ★★★★★

After having been in the cancer field for over 25 years, this book still was able to provide insights and stories in the “war” against cancer that I was quite unaware of. Dr. Mukherjee starts with a review of the most primitive and ancient treatments for cancer, which typically were to do nothing, or even worse, to attempt to do something. He does a masterful job of describing how the nature of cancer slowly has come to be understood over time. Mukherjee elaborates on the earliest attempts at surgery, followed by attempts with radiation and then chemotherapy for cancer. Occasional serendipitous successes often led to either skepticism or unbridled optimism regarding possible cancer cures. Mukherjee paints a masterful picture of interacting actors in the scene, including physicians attempting against the advice of colleagues in the first chemotherapy trials, colleagues outright rejecting too aggressive of researchers, drug companies hesitant to engage in the development of expensive new drugs, and public opinion spinners all interacting to generate the interest and then funds to permit cancer research to occur. Mukherjee, being a medical oncologist, definitely provides a serious bias towards the defeat of cancer through finding just the right chemicals, receptor blockers, and pathway interrupters. Though he writes with a conservative tone, one is still left with the idea that all we need is a short amount of time and another godzillion dollars and cancer will be in the past tense for everybody. I heard that statement at a major medical meeting from the head of the NCI in 2008, alleging that with the current progress, we would not see a cancer death after the year 2012–that leaves 9 months for them to find a cure.

I appreciate how Mukherjee refrains from being totally inclusive and chasing every possible storyline, but selects out the main channels, such as the driving forces for the development of the NCI and American Cancer Society, while omitting the development of such groups as the Susan Komen breast cancer story. He’s honest in noting that for the most part, we still remain in the primitive stages of finding the solution to cancer. His stories orient around the Sidney Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, and that is understandable. He beautifully paints a personal face to oncologic care through his stories of patients, both under his care and other physicians. This book can be understood by both physicians and lay alike, and a most worthy read.

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2 Responses to “The Emperor of All Maladies”

  1. Onkel Dennis says:

    Far be it from me to pontificate upon cancer, though the topic looks a little different out here among the “primitive savages” who are not automatically drawn to slash, burn, and poison. The local “bush doctor”, Harry Guy, in San Ignacio has a four-component treatment – four locally-occurring fruits and herbs. One of them is growing in our yard and is our favorite fruit: soursop. A Mennonite recently had colon cancer and went the Guy route. The cancer has receded. I know – a sample point of one (more), yet there probably is something to it.

    On a more biochemically-researched basis, a common drug we use down here for worms and parasites, mebendazole, appears to be decades more effective than taxol in blocking mechanisms that allow cancer growth. I do not recall the details, not being a biochemist, but it was fascinating and can be found with a little web-searching.

    Maybe some highly effective deterrents to cancer are already in use but knowledge of them is not widespread. Perhaps that’s what the head of the NCI was hoping for …

  2. Christie Waldron says:

    I asked for this book as a Christmas gift in 2010, wanting insights on the prostate cancer that took my dad and the colon cancer that took my granddad. What i did not know when i read it was that 8 months later, I’d be diagnosed with breast cancer. It was a fascinating read, and I learned a lot. I recommend it, since we all know someone who has faced or is facing this battle.

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