Physician, professor and author Siddhartha Mukherjee.
Physician, professor and author Siddhartha Mukherjee.

With the narrative skills of a novelist, the vastly sophisticated understanding of anatomy, chemistry, and biology of a scientist, and the ability to knit events and people together with the skill of a trained historian, Siddhartha Mukherjee writes a monumental biography of cancer.

The “Big C” — the disease that is feared by most and upon which scientists and senators declared a war in the mid-twentieth century is here the fascinating focus of a monumental narrative that examines how for centuries clinicians and scientists have tried to understand, explain, and cure the devastating disease. Mukherjee is a cancer researcher, physician, and professor at Columbia University who begins his narrative with the ancient Egyptians, Hippocrates, and Galen and takes the reader to the late nineteenth century and through the twentieth when cancer treatment and research become increasingly important to modern science and medicine.

Mukherjee’s narrative encompasses the efforts of many scientists and doctors who take different approaches to treating cancer. From the work of Halsted who performed radical surgeries to “extirpate” breast cancers and Sidney Farber who used anti-folates to choke cancer cells in children with ALL (acute lymphoblastic leukemia) to the development of chemotherapy, radiation therapy, and targeted cell therapy Mukherjee carefully explains the different theories, approaches, and big questions that animate cancer research. Is there a universal cause for cancer or is cancer a heterogenous disease? Do viruses cause cancer? What is the amount of chemical toxins that can be used on a patient before cancer can be controlled? The questions are many. Even if Mukherjee had simply explained all these developments to the common reader, this book would be very valuable. But Mukherjee goes further. This is the story not just of a disease and its mysteries but also the story of numerous scientists—brilliant men (yes, cancer research is a field dominated by men) who toiled ceaselessly and obsessively in dark corridors of hospitals and labs pursuing the elusive answers to their questions. This is the story of a brilliant socialite, Mary Lasker, and a politically astute physician, Dr. Sidney Farber, who mobilized a nation and its politicians to declare a war on cancer and to raise funds for research, coordinate the work of many scientists, and raise awareness about the people and families who suffered. This is the story of patients like Carla, Germaine, and Einar Gustafson (aka “Jimmy” of the Jimmy Fund) and thousands of unnamed individuals who suffered from the disease, who participated in clinical trials, and who survived or died in the process. This is also the history of scientific research, the ethical issues involved in such work, the consolations and sorrows of scientific discovery, and more often than not the story of serendipitous discoveries, partnerships, and encounters that constitute a relentless search for methods of defeating the “Emperor of all Maladies.”

This is not the most easy book to read but it is definitely a very compelling one. Mukherjee is a great narrator and also a brilliant teacher who can lay out the complexities of genetics and cytology and myriad other subjects for the average reader. This is must read for all of us as it is a story of not just triumphs of science but also one that gives us hope. The war on cancer may not be won but there have been decisive victories in this war—the remission rates for once dreaded diseases like several kinds of leukemia, for breast cancer, for Hodgkins disease have increased significantly in the last three decades. Cancer is definitely one of the most complex and fascinating diseases of humans and this book gives the reader a comprehensive and compelling biography.

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