Cancer, a disease with tens of millions of faces, will require many biographers. But those future biographers and historians of the disease will labor from deep within the long shadow cast by Siddhartha Mukherjee’s remarkable The Emperor of All Maladies.
Starting with the teachings of the Egyptian physician Imhotep (circa 2625 B.C.), Mukherjee’s “biography of cancer” offers a sweeping “attempt to enter the mind of this immortal disease, to understand its behavior.” It is a vivid and profoundly engaging read.
Mukherjee, an assistant professor of medicine at Columbia University and a former Rhodes Scholar, is both a cancer physician and a cancer researcher. He is also extraordinarily good at explaining complex medical and scientific issues and controversies. He devotes most of his pages to developments in laboratory research and clinical treatment since the 1950s, as cancer medicine moved from a gruesome regimen of radical surgeries, through the development of radiation treatments, into chemotherapy and combined therapies and, finally, to the present era, in which research and treatment have finally come together and biotechnology has given rise to targeted therapies that attack cancer cells and the genes within those cells.
Science and medicine, like all human endeavors, are driven by the knowledge, intelligence, ambitions and egos of the people involved, and Mukherjee presents lively thumbnail portraits of doctors and researchers and of the battles that engaged them. He writes vividly of the political struggles to fund cancer research and to limit known carcinogens like tobacco. He quotes poets, philosophers and writers, particularly Susan Sontag, and he writes with empathy about the experiences of his own patients. All of this makes The Emperor of All Maladies not just an exceptional work in the history of science but a fine example of literary nonfiction.
Cancer, as Mukherjee writes in his epilogue, is “the scrappy, fecund, invasive, adaptable twin to our own scrappy, fecund, invasive, adaptable cells and genes.” This means that we may never completely defeat this many-headed disease. But, he suggests, with a greater understanding of cancer, we may at least be able to forestall its fatal effects until old age. With The Emperor of All Maladies, Siddartha Mukherjee makes a large contribution to a better general understanding of this dread disease.
Copyright 2010 BookPage Reviews.
The story of cancer, as well as a coming-of-age tale of a renowned oncologist.
Cancer physician Mukherjee (Medicine/Columbia Univ.) began this book in 2003 while completing a residency in medicine and graduate work in cancer immunology. He shapes the narrative as a heroic contest between two adversaries—cancer and the brave patients who fight for their lives, despite horrendous nausea from chemotherapy and other painful effects of the disease and the treatment. Only since the 1950s have cancer victims had a reasonable chance of surviving and returning to normal life, and even then surgical treatment often left patients disabled while halting but not stopping the spread of metastatic cancers. In addition, researchers had to consider the effects of radiation in destroying healthy tissue and causing leukemia and pernicious anemia. The side effects of both radiation and chemotherapy were frequently deadly. Mukherjee traces the refinement of treatments over the past 50 years and the development of early detection, as well as the growing understanding of the relationship between genetic abnormalities and environmental carcinogens in causing cancers. In 2005, significant advances and progress were noted by the scientific community. "The mortality for nearly every major form of cancer," writes the author, "had continuously dropped for fifteen straight years." Mukherjee also looks optimistically to the future when the Human Genome Project completes "The Cancer Genome Atlas," which will become "a compendium of every gene mutated in the most common forms of cancer."
An inspiring account of a very personal battle against "the plague of our generation."Copyright Kirkus 2010 Kirkus/BPI Communications.All rights reserved.
Mukherjee's debut book is a sweeping epic of obsession, brilliant researchers, dramatic new treatments, euphoric success and tragic failure, and the relentless battle by scientists and patients alike against an equally relentless, wily, and elusive enemy. From the first chemotherapy developed from textile dyes to the possibilities emerging from our understanding of cancer cells, Mukherjee shapes a massive amount of history into a coherent story with a roller-coaster trajectory: the discovery of a new treatment--surgery, radiation, chemotherapy--followed by the notion that if a little is good, more must be better, ending in disfiguring radical mastectomy and multidrug chemo so toxic the treatment ended up being almost worse than the disease. The first part of the book is driven by the obsession of Sidney Farber and philanthropist Mary Lasker to find a unitary cure for all cancers. (Farber developed the first successful chemotherapy for childhood leukemia.) The last and most exciting part is driven by the race of brilliant, maverick scientists to understand how cells become cancerous. Each new discovery was small, but as Mukherjee, a Columbia professor of medicine, writes, "Incremental advances can add up to transformative changes." Mukherjee's formidable intelligence and compassion produce a stunning account of the effort to disrobe the "emperor of maladies." (Nov.)[Page ]. Copyright 2010 PWxyz LLC