Telling cancer's story

In 1971, Richard Nixon declared war on cancer when he signed the “National Cancer Act.” He said that he hoped this would be remembered as his administration’s most “significant act.”

Unfortunately for the American people, his most remembered, and probably most significant, impact was a burglary that launched a thousand crimes.

In the war against cancer, there is very little doubt that cancer is winning. It is the number one cause of death for women and number two overall.

Siddhartha Mukherjee’s The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer tells the story of this “war” eloquently. He braids together the politics and the science, the stories of cancer patients and the surgeons and doctors into an overwhelming, detailed history of (mostly) Western medicine’s struggle with the “emperor” of all diseases.Emperor

I recommend it to you highly, but I also warn you that it is difficult to read. It was difficult for me because of its rich foundation in science. Of all the courses I’ve taken in more than 20 years of schooling, biology was the hardest for me.

It was difficult, too, because the stories were devastating. The women and the children who suffered through breast cancer and leukemia, their bodies the testing ground of more and more radical surgeries, more and more poisonous drugs seem to cry out from history. Yes, cancer is horrible. But the “war” to “cure” it is almost more horrible.

I felt any innocence I’ve held onto about the fields of medicine and medical research ripped away. Reading about surgeons and oncologists engaged in political warfare over who owns this disease is disheartening.

Mukherjee pulls no punches. He has no illusions. There is a bluntness to this book that I very much respect. Doctors and researchers are bumbling and cruel, brilliant and kind. Patients are abandoned, destroyed by their “cures,” given extra years. This is a story of unrelenting defeat.

Yet, Mukherjee inspires. We are learning, making some progress, becoming more sophisticated in this struggle.

There is little doubt that smoking causes cancer. It’s shocking to read and be reminded of the sordid tale of the American government and the tobacco industry (and even doctors and researchers) as they fight over the role of cigarettes and tobacco’s status in our country. It was and is an epic struggle over the single piece of real knowledge we have about cancer’s cause.

The true wonder of this book, though, is the person Mukherjee projects as the teller of the cancer’s story. He is a charitable storyteller, showing compassion for researchers, doctors, patients, and advocates. His stories are sometimes terrible and reveal the utter weakness of the humans that populate it.

It is his love for his patients, however, that makes the book what it is. He ends the book with a story about one of his patients.

Germaine seemed, that evening, to have captured something essential about our struggle against cancer: that, to keep pace with this malady, you needed to keep inventing and reinventing, learning and unlearning strategies.

I no longer believe that we are fighting a war against cancer. If we persist in thinking of cancer as an opponent in a war, we are doomed to lose. Cancer, as Mukherjee tells it, is at the very core of what it means to be human. It is who we are.

Our epic struggle, our challenge, is learning how to live with cancer in our midst. We must learn how to live with it and keep living with it until we can’t any longer.

We must learn how to be better people in the face of this terrible and relentless thing that believes in growth for the sake of growth.

We must learn how to honor our better natures, how to cooperate in our research, how to listen to and see the people in our midst who suffer.

We need to tell our stories and tell them again. We need to listen to the stories of others.

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Filed under: Books on Cancer

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