Title: The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer
Author: Siddhartha Mukherjee
Release Date: November 16, 2010
Genre: Non-Fiction, Science
Rating: 5 out of 5
In this ambitious book, Siddhartha Mukherjee, a cancer specialist at Columbia University, takes on the daunting task of writing a biography of cancer. He takes the reader from the first mention of cancer, by ancient Egyptian physician Imhotep, and traces it through history. He chronicles different treatments and shows the reader how cancer, in its present incarnation, came to be.
I can’t imagine how difficult the process of writing a book like The Emperor of all Maladies must have been. But I know it must have been time consuming and frustrating because, having read it, I don’t even know how to begin to review it. This book is so epic, so expansive that it deserves better than the hesitant, cloudy description above. I’ll do the best I can with this review, but keep in mind that, as good as this review says this book is, it’s actually better.
The Emperor of All Maladies has so many different facets. It’s a look at some of Mukherjee’s individual patients. It’s a glimpse into the life of researchers and doctors so desperate to save their patients’ lives that they’re willing to poison them, to increase the toxicity of their bodies to the breaking point. It’s a peek into the motivations of activists for cancer, the people who brought the disease out of the shadows and put the spotlight on it. These people raised money for the disease and helped the American public to understand how much of an epidemic cancer is. Above all, though, it’s the story of a murky, twisting, incomprehensible disease and its ability to defeat almost everything we have thrown at it thus far.
Mukherjee highlights the variable nature of cancer and how one word isn’t really able to capture the breadth of this disease. Different cancers respond to different treatments – doctors won’t use the same thing to treat leukemia (cancer of the blood) as they would use to fight breast cancer. Some cancers have high, encouraging 5 year remission rates, while others are death sentences. It’s so difficult to use just one word to describe all these diseases. Mukherjee helps the reader to understand the nuances and insidiousness of cancer.
The author also takes the reader through different treatments for cancer, including some horrific ones. He delivers the information in a fascinating way, showing how treatments evolved and built upon previous discoveries. He also presents the difficulty of trial and error methods when lives are at stake, especially when researchers try out their ideas on human patients. And this is where the book shows some ray of light, where Mukherjee ensures that the reader knows all is not hopeless. There are some amazing discoveries within this book’s pages. Mukherjee chronicles the setbacks, yes, but also the wonderful advancements in medicine as scientists fight to find a cure for cancer.
Mukherjee’s patients give this epic story a human face. The reader learns about their situations (of course, their names have been changed to protect their privacy) and their prognoses. As the book progresses, so does the disease in these patients, as well as the course of their treatments. The book doesn’t focus on them by any means, but through these few people, Mukherjee reminds the reader that cancer isn’t something “out there” to be studied – it’s affecting real people, right now.
I feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface of The Emperor of All Maladies. There is so much to this wonderful book; Mukherjee is a talented writer and he presents information, even when it is very technical and scientific, in an easily digestible way. This book is long, yet never for a second did it lose my interest. It’s not a book you want to read when you’re disengaged, but if you try, it will likely pull your brain into the story, making you think as you’re consuming the information Mukherjee presents.
When I started with The Emperor of All Maladies, I didn’t think that a biography of cancer was possible – it was just too big, with too much history. Yet Mukherjee accomplished his goal admirably and gracefully. This is a book that everyone should pick up, in order to understand this vicious disease and what has been, is being, and can be done to halt its rampage. I hope that Mukherjee continues to write books, as clearly, treating cancer patients is not his only talent.