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The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer

 

Siddhartha Mukherjee, MD, PhD, has turned cancer into a page turner.

 

BY Kathy LaTour
PUBLISHED March 03, 2011

by Siddhartha Mukherjee [Scribner 2010]

Siddhartha Mukherjee, MD, PhD, an oncologist and assistant professor at Columbia University, has turned cancer into a page turner as he looks at where cancer fits in a 20th century timetable of those who have tangled with the crab.

Mukherjee takes us into the lives of the researchers—men and women who were often idiosyncratic, often driven by ego, but who solved pieces of the cancer puzzle. He introduces heroes of cancer research, such as Sidney Farber, MD, who took on leukemia when it had been “abandoned by internists, who had no drugs to offer for it, and by surgeons, who could not possibly operate on blood,” Mukherjee writes. 

Farber’s first efforts to treat leukemia were met with “skepticism, disbelief and outrage,” but his determination led Farber to philanthropist Mary Lasker who taught him how to use the media to draw public attention (read funding) to the disease. 

He also depicts moments of high drama, including the day when 15 metastatic breast cancer patients gathered for the first dose of Herceptin (trastuzumab). Participant Barbara Bradfield’s cancer had metastasized to the lymph nodes near her collarbone, and, as Mukherjee writes, each of the women ran her hand over Bradfield’s collarbone in a “peculiarly intimate ritual that would be repeated every week. Two weeks after the first dose of the antibody, when the group filed past Bradfield, touching the node again, the change was incontrovertible. Bradfield’s tumor had softened and visibly shrunk.”

One irritating aspect of this book is its lack of praise for the nurses who have been present every step along the way. Also disturbing is Mukherjee’s inability to bring the book to a close. He talks of the pressure on the government after the first man walked on the moon to take the same “programmatic” approach to cancer. What if all the cancer researchers moved to a remote location and worked in collaboration on the cure?

Activists demanded action from Richard Nixon in 1969, offering the 318,000 Americans who died that year as their proof that the nation had to declare war on the disease. This year, an estimated 560,000 will die. More people are being cured, but more are dying. Is that progress? Where are we failing? What needs to be done to speed the research process? Perhaps those questions will be answered in the next edition. 

 

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