• Joe Pace

Favorite Non-Fiction Books, #65: The Emperor of All Maladies, A Biography of Cancer


"Crabs? Oh, oh, Cancer. I get it now."

I first bought this book as a gift for my physician wife, who encounters and battles skin cancers every day. Last year, when yet another close friend was diagnosed with an advanced form of cancer, I picked it up myself. It's not a brisk read - there's a lot of chemistry and other hard science in there that I have to plow through - but it is an illuminating one. Mukherjee starts us off with a tour of how the ancients perceived cancer, mostly with a resigned shrug and as a catchall for the various ways the body can fail that defied gross anatomical examination. As medicine progressed, and we began to extirpate leading causes of death like tuberculosis, cancers emerged as the pre-eminent bodily villain of modern times. From there, it's a plunge into the work of Farber and many others to combat the cellular betrayal of our own bodies.


Cancer, of course, isn't a disease. It's barely a class of diseases, still to this day the same wide-mouthed bucket medicine uses to hold a variety of afflictions. Leukemia was the first tackled by modern medicine, the ailing blood of children the first hill to be taken. Pioneers moved from knives to radiation to chemicals in their pursuit of victory, a nonlinear road to higher survival rates littered with tiny bodies, grieving families, and exhausted scientists. And yet, inexorably, progress. The next frontier leaves behind the effective yet scarcely bearable carpet-bombing by chemical cocktails and seeks solutions in our genes themselves, as the battle against cancer goes from analog to digital. Mukherjee's narrative is not uniformly uplifting, and he avoids the pitfalls of pollyannaish platitudes. Yet in the end he does provide some glimmers of hope. Like so much of our dearly-bought technological age, our health is less precarious than ever in human history. And our best minds are on the job. The solutions will come - too late, perhaps, for so many of our suffering loved ones - but it will come. We are a resilient species, blessed with the inspiration and industry required for putting men on the moon and inventing vaccines and so many other marvels. The best thing we could do would be to consign our myopic minorities to the dustbin of history where their antiquated, anti-scientific beliefs belong. There's work to do and lives to save.

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