The Emperor of All Maladies by Siddhartha Mukherjee – Scribners, 2010 – For those who prefer non-fiction, this book is a winner. Described as a ‘biography of cancer’ it is, indeed, a history of the disease and a chronicle of those who have worked to cure the world of this scourge.
References to the disease can be found in Egyptian hieroglyphics dating back to about 2500 BC. It’s clear that the disease has been around for as long as homo-sapiens. Up until the 1800’s cancer was considered incurable and Mukherjee begins outlining the progression of different approaches to treating the disease over several hundred years.
Surgery was the first line of defense with the removal of tumors the original objective. When this proved inadequate, removing increasing amounts of flesh and tissue was prescribed. This approach reached its peak with what was called ‘radical surgery’ – removing as much as possible while just keeping the patient alive. It had a few successes but all too many failures.
The advent of x-rays and chemicals brought a whole new chapter of experimentation. Researchers spent years examining drugs that would be toxic to cancer cells while not killing normal cells. Using terminal patients as willing guinea pigs, many drugs were applied in ever increasing amounts and in mixed concoctions. The results were usually disappointing and successes mostly temporary. All too many patients suffered through the side effects of toxic drugs only to succumb when their cancers returned.
Understanding the molecular behavior of cancer – its relationship to DNA, chromosomes, genomes and the search for molecular ‘triggers and ‘inhibitors’ of cancer has been the focus of the most recent research. Here the promise is that cancer will ultimately be eradicated by digging it out by its roots.
Mukherjee has an engaging style and the book is almost like reading a murder mystery. We have an army of detectives and forensic experts on the trail of the most clever and resourceful serial killer in the history of the world. Desperate measures, inspired guesses, classic blunders and patient slogging by all the gumshoes have gotten us closer to the killer, but Mukherjee leaves us with no doubt that we’ll be looking at a few more episodes before all is revealed.
TL:DR – When it comes to killers, you might think Putin these days, but ‘The Emperor Of All Maladies’ kills even more people than the Russian nutcase and this is a must read book aimed at anyone hoping to understand the nature of cancer and the quest for its cure.