Wednesday, September 14, 2011
A Review: The Emperor of All Maladies
The Emperor of All Maladies, by Siddhartha Mukherjee, MD. New York: Simon and Schuster. 2010. pg 571.
I just finished reading The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer, by Siddhartha Mukherjee, a biography that is that reads more like an epic novel. What struck me the most about the 2011 Pulitzer Prize winner is how much storytelling lies at the heart of science and medicine. As Mukherjee writes himself, “Medicine, I said, begins with storytelling. Patients tell stories to describe illness; doctors tell stories to understand it. Science tells it own story to explain disease.” And Mukherjee does a fantastic job of telling the story of cancer and the science and medicine arrayed to combat against it.
What I appreciated most about Mukherjee’s writing is its patience. He uncovers a lot of ground---from the antiquities to the present---and delves into the complex and scientific explanations of cancer cells, biological mutations, drugs, etc., but you never feel lost or confused. He has the sort of patience you would expect and hope from all oncologists. He knows his audience and that is always a good skill to have as a writer.
There are plenty of tense moments in the book and surprises---for instance how cancer cells actually grow and metastasize and the history of women’s health and the enormous role it plays in cancer research. There are a cast of characters in the war against cancer that sit indelibly on the mind, such as childhood leukemia researcher Dr. Sidney Farber and his civilian comrade, Mary Lasker, a New York socialite who helped make cancer research a top priority in the federal government; as well as the countless men and women across the world whose research pushed forward our understanding of one of the deadliest diseases in our lifetime.
Everybody has been touched by cancer. Either as a patient or a loved-one. I certainly lost my grandfather to cancer and my father has had his own victorious bout with it a few years ago. The more we understand this disease, then the more we’re able to find ways to treat and even possibly cure it. I encourage anyone who is interested in learning more about cancer to pick up The Emperor of All Maladies.