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The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer

On WID's bookshelf: The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer by Siddhartha Mukherjee.

The Emperor of All Maladies

Written by Siddhartha Mukherjee

Reviewed by Adityarup “Rup” Chakravorty, Social Media and Communications Assistant, WID

The American Cancer Society estimates that more than half a million people in the USA alone will die due to various cancers in 2015. But in his astonishingly ambitious book, The Emperor of all Maladies: A Biography of Cancer, Siddhartha Mukherjee writes, “dying, even more than death, defines the illness.”Although published more than four years ago, Mukherjee’s first foray into literature has lost none of its ability to draw readers into a fascinating journey “into the depths not only of science and medicine, but of culture, history, literature, and politics, into cancer’s past and into its future.”

On the 23rd of December, 1971, President Nixon signed the National Cancer Act and declared war on cancer. But what exactly have we been fighting against? Who have been the generals and soldiers in this skirmish? And most importantly, are we winning or losing this battle? These are the questions Mukherjee tackles in The Emperor of all Maladies. Mukherjee, who is a professor-physician at Columbia University and its Medical Center, is clearly motivated by his concern for his patients and driven by a need to understand – and maybe even conquer – the motley collection of diseases we call cancer. The book itself, he says, “is a very long answer to a question first posed to me by a patient…a woman with a very aggressive form of abdominal cancer” who, in the depths of her losing battle against the disease, wanted to know what it was she was fighting for and against.

Mukherjee weaves together stories of the patients he has treated, their struggles and triumphs, into a narrative that is surprisingly personal in tone while communicating an impressive amount of information. What the book does not try to do is explain the science behind our understanding of cancer biology in-depth. Mukherjee takes us on a breezy, fairly superficial survey of the researchers and discoveries that have punctuated our increasing knowledge about why and how cancers happen and how to prevent and stop them.

But, The Emperor of all Maladies extends beyond just looking at causes and possible treatments for cancers. Where it truly excels is Mukherjee’s ability to focus on the people who helped frame the social, political and scientific attitudes and approaches to cancer we have today. From Sydney Farber and Mary Lasker and their battles to take the issues of cancer research and cures into the halls of the Senate and House in Washington, to Robert Weinberg and (UW-Madison’s very own) Howard Temin and their quests to understand the biology behind the disease, Mukherjee is superb at transporting us into the minds and worlds of the titanic characters that populate his literary journey of discovery. In trying to write a biography of cancer, Mukherjee embarks on an impossible task, but what he does accomplish is impressive.

The Emperor of all Maladies is an engrossing read that succeeds in its mission of transporting the public and scientists into the social, political, and historical – if not the scientific – pillars of cancer biology and research. Mukherjee’s confident yet humble tone frames his obvious desire to help his patients make sense of a senseless disease and leaves us with a surprisingly optimistic feeling.

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