The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer

Reviewed by: Alysa Cummings
The Abramson Cancer Center of the University of Pennsylvania?
Last Modified: November 30, 2010

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Series Editor: Siddhartha Mukherjee, MD, PhD
Publisher: Scribner, 2010
Information: $30.00 US
ISBN: 9781439107959
OncoLink Rating:
3 Stars

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Dr. Mukherjee's "biography of cancer" begins with a thought provoking quotation from Jane Goodfield in the prologue that sets the stage for what's to follow:

Cancer begins and ends with people

Nearly four hundred pages later, the author takes this notion one step further when he writes:

Medicine…begins with storytelling. Patients tell stories to describe illness; doctors tell stories to understand it. Science tells its own story to explain diseases…

The Emperor All Maladies manages to do both, exceptionally well. The book relates stories, one after another - stories about cancer doctors, researchers and cancer patients. In this way, chapter by chapter, the book uncovers cancer's story through the ages. But only a talented author could breathe such life into the disease's long history and bring so many of its players magically back to life.

Beginning with Atossa (circa 475 BC) and the mysterious mass in her breast that may have been the first case of inflammatory breast cancer. The reader also spends some time with Greek physician Galen (AD 129-199) and anatomist Andreas Vesalius (1514-1564). Could cancer be caused by an excess of black bile in the body‚

Mukherjee's book traces the origins of the War on Cancer that brought together the skills and talents of Sidney Farber, the father of modern chemotherapy and Mary Lasker, whose efforts led to the creation of the American Cancer Society.

The author introduces the reader to William Stewart Halsted, the father of the radical mastectomy, whose "more is better" approach to breast cancer surgery at Johns Hopkins University left women disfigured and often crippled. The book then traces the slow evolution in medicine from radical mastectomy to lumpectomy.

The Emperor of All Maladies examines the work of George Papanicolaou, a Greek cytologist at Cornell University whose pioneering work in the early 20th century resulted in the Pap smear, the now standard test to detect precancerous changes in the cervix. Mukherjee humanizes his story by letting the reader know that Papanicolaou's wife Maria contributed to scientific knowledge by "volunteering" for cervical smears on a daily (!!!) basis.

Even as the author shares the long history of cancer, of cancer pioneers whose discoveries moved science forward, of patients who either succumb or survive the disease, he infuses the story with both admiration and hope. For how very far we have come in the War on Cancer, and how much more work there is still left to be done.

Poetically written. Humorous in parts. Well researched. Compelling to read in ways that scientific books rarely are. The Emperor of All Maladies has deservedly earned a place on multiple Best Books of 2010 lists in the non-fiction category.


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