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Being Part of the Solution

Siddhartha Mukherjee, MD, PhD, discusses cancer research.

BY Kathy LaTour
PUBLISHED December 21, 2011

Editor’s Note: CURE Editor-at-Large Kathy LaTour spoke with Siddhartha Mukherjee, MD, PhD, a New York oncologist and cancer researcher, who received a Pulitzer prize for his book The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer.

Kathy LaTour: You have said you think we will make significant progress in cancer in your lifetime. What about a cure?

Siddhartha Mukherjee: If by cure you mean complete freedom from disease in a person’s lifetime, I think that’s not going to be achievable for some forms of cancer. Cancer’s not a disease like that. It is a disease much like cardiovascular disease, which has a chronic-relapsing quality about it. I think we can define cure in very different ways. Treating someone and converting their illness to something chronic is, for them, similar to a cure depending on what toxicities they have.

KL: You are still a practicing oncologist. Do patients motivate you to do cancer research?

SM: Absolutely. Sidney Farber did something very interesting. When building the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, he insisted that the research offices were on the higher floors and the clinical offices were on the lower floors because he needed the researchers to move through patients’ waiting rooms before they went to their offices. He wanted the humbling experience for the researchers to remind them that this is what it really is about. It’s not about making a big, fat career out of something or talking in the abstract, biological sense, but ultimately knowing those abstract, biological experiments have to meet a clinical reality. So every morning before researchers started looking under the microscope, they would remember that there was something non-microscopic about the lives that were underneath them, around them.

KL: If you had an opportunity to say something directly to our readers, what would it be?

SM: First, participate in clinical trials because that’s the only way we’ll learn anything about this illness. Remember, this is not someone else’s problem; this is our problem. This is a problem that we inherited, and it’s a problem that we will pass on to our children. And we will be held liable by our children if we don’t do something about cancer. Cancer is reaching a kind of a universal impact that is undeniable. So if we’re not part of the solution, we’re part of the problem. 

Second, support the scientific structures that allow research to continue. Again, we’re facing a budget crisis, and there’s been talk about decreasing the funding for the National Institutes of Health and the National Cancer Institute. To me, that’s not a problem in balancing the budget, it’s a problem in values. If the nation can’t commit funds to its preeminent scientific institutions that actually are helping find treatments and cures for deadly diseases, there’s something wrong with our value system. 

And finally, don’t forget to have empathy for people who are encountering cancer in their lives.

KL: Every day, 1,500 people in the U.S. die of cancer.

SM: As Paul Brodeur says, “Statistics are human beings with the tears wiped off.” So if you see that number, remember it is ultimately referring to real people—families with real loved ones who struggled with illness and passed away.

KL: You’re becoming the face of cancer because of your book. Is that a weighty responsibility?

SM: I hope I’m not the face of cancer. The face of cancer shouldn’t be the physician—it should be the patient.

Read Kathy LaTour’s review of The Emperor of All Maladies at curetoday.com/blog/emperor.

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