Nightstand Science

Former SBN executive Erika Diaz returns to share some reading recommendations that you should add to Nature, Science and whatever other journals you read. She will be reviewing one book per month, both fiction and non-fiction, so long as they are science related. If you have any book suggestions please do send them her way through the comment box below or tweet them to her @ErikaDiazGR

The Emperor of all Maladies

Jessica Zhang - Thursday, September 01, 2011

Not a single day that goes by when you don’t hear or read about cancer. Whether you find out about an acquaintance who has recently been diagnosed, or you see an ad for the “Fundraiser for ____ (fill in your cancer of choice)” or you turn on the news to find out that one of the most prominent politicians of this country has succumbed to this all-consuming disease.  And yet despite its apparent omnipresence, there seem to be more questions than answers.

The Emperor of all Maladies: A Biography of Cancer by Siddhartha Mukherjee

The Emperor of all Maladies: A Biography of Cancer is a revealing story about some of these questions and how scientists have attempted to answer them. But what makes this an interesting read is that it is not just about the science, nor is it just about the disease. Mukherjee weaves together the story of an assortment of characters whose role has been pivotal in bringing us to where we are today in terms of cancer treatment. He depicts medics and scientists as more than researchers; Vesalius as an artist, Hodgkins as a museum curator, Kaplan as a tailor, etc. Add to that a kid turned poster boy for fundraising purposes, a socialite who thought laymen were more important to curing cancer than doctors, and politicians who announced the “War on Cancer” would come to an end in the 70s, and you’ve got yourself a flavour of many personalities present in this book.

Despite being written for the general public, the author explores both social and scientific aspects of cancer including the ethics of clinical trials, the politics behind government funding, the mining of early compound libraries for treatments and the discovery of biomarkers to selectively target cancer over healthy cells. In doing so, he also illustrates how the mentality of physicians changed from wanting to kill cancer even at the expense of killing the patient, to understanding the importance of early and focused treatment.

As I was reading this book, I found it amusing how every generation of doctors thought they were on the brink of curing cancer. Indeed, that is a question that comes up often, and one that Mukherjee brings up very early on in his introduction: Will cancer ever be cured? But as amusing as it may seem for someone to have said it two decades ago, I was quite shocked to read an article published in The Guardian just a week ago with the same language and claims to fast approaching cures not just “in cancer but across medicine.” While it is true that advances in science have accelerated to an unprecedented rate, I wonder if these statements, just like all those in the book, also came in all too early. 

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