One might think that a book about the history of cancer might be dry, textbook reading. Not so with Siddhartha Mukherjee’s The Emperor of All Maladies. Mukherjee makes his “biography of cancer” truly come to life, recounting the known history of cancer’s occurrence and the efforts of many researchers over the years to treat the dread disease.
The book focuses a good deal on the battle with leukemia, the cancer chosen for study by the pioneer Sidney Farber because in the 1940s, before CT scans and MRIs, it was the one cancer that could be measured and quantified in a reliable way. In his research, Farber managed to find chemicals that could slow the progression of leukemia; he became the “father of modern chemotherapy.” He also transformed the public’s involvement in cancer research, thanks to his progressive fundraising ideas and recruitment of socialite Mary Lasker to declare and wage a “war on cancer.” The pair worked tirelessly for decades to raise money, awareness, and government involvement in this war.
Mukherjee, an oncologist, uses his own experiences treating cancer patients to bring a personal feel to his book. His observations are more than just clinical; they are vivid descriptions handled with an expert writer’s deft touch.
The book explains in laymen’s terms not just what we know today about how cancer is caused, but the research over the years that got us to where we are now. The same goes for treatment; surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy are the standards for care today, but we learn over the course of the book how those treatments originated and evolved. Even more importantly, we learn just how far we have to go to be able to cure cancer in all its deadly forms, for the war is far from being won.
The Emperor of All Maladies is riveting reading. This doctor’s talent extends far beyond the cancer ward.
Rated: Moderate, for two uses of strong language (both in one quote on page 319) and a few uses of mild and moderate language.