The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer

Book review by Deane Barker tags: health, medicine

A shockingly good book about the history of the greatest disease Man has ever known. The author tracks the history of cancer from when it was first identified in 4,500 BC through to the present day. The approach is holistic – the author examines cancer clinically, scientifically, politically, statistically, and socially.

Cancer is simply not a single thing. It’s a massive throng of diseases all characterized by the same thing: the uncontrolled growth of cells. If someone were to say “I cured cancer!” the correct response might be, “Which one?”

We’ve spent hundreds of years formally researching it and find a cure, but I’m left wondering if we’re any closer? The author covers trial after trial attempting to improve the odds, and they fail one after the other. Any cure for cancer, it turns out, is violent. We cut, we poison, or we burn – surgery, chemo, or radiation. The “cures” are sometimes worse than the disease, and chemo in particular has the side-effect of creating more cancer down the road.

Even tracking cancer is difficult. Few organizations agree on statistics, and the advent of early detection and throw everything into disarray. If the amount of time for diagnosis to death goes up, is that because we’re treating it better, or just finding it earlier?

About two-thirds of the way in, when the author starts discussing gene therapies, it gets a little technical and I perhaps got a bit lost, but otherwise, it’s extremely approachable. The author pays specific attention to the politically and fund-raising aspects of cancer research. This has been a battle fought in hospitals, labs, and government offices.

Wonderful book.

Book Info

Siddhartha Mukherjee

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