Dominik Farhan

The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer, by Sddihartha Mukherjee

Cancer is without a doubt one of the most terrifying illnesses and due to the increase in our lifespans, it is likely that at some point we are going to cross paths with it. Yet we still know so little about it. Especially public sees it is a kind of chimera that is best left unspoken and unnoticed. This is a pity because there are things to know and cancer can teach us a lot about ourselves.

Teaching us about ourselves is something that Mukherjee does incredibly well. He shows the immense struggle between humanity and cancer in a clear light with which it is easy to understand. He reminds us that cancer is not a new illness but something that has been with us for millennia. He starts in the Ancient Egypt, from which one of the first descriptions of tumor is, then goes on to discuss Galen's theory of bodily fluids but the majority of the time is quite expectably spent in the last two hundred years during which we saw advances in surgeries, screening, chemotherapy and other medicaments.

Bear in mind that this isn't a book on the biology of cancer. This is its biography. It might thus seem less relevant if you only want to understand the science behind the illness. But I would argue that the contrary is true. This book is relevant. Very relevant. To understand the illness one must first understand the patient. In this book, you can meet many brave men and women who struggled with cancer accompanied by an unspeakable determination. You can meet doctors who in their despair tried dangerous cures that often led to a total failure. You can meet scientists boasting that they cured the illness whose patients achieved miraculous remissions but quite often relapsed with a much deadlier and uncurable version of their former cancer. But you can also meet hope and satisfaction of seeing science advance forward and finish the book with the thought that although we are still probably far away from eradicating cancer we are better at curing it than ever before.

Mukherjee's book is a really vivid description of all of this. Sometimes it is quite dense (maybe too dense) and it can feel a little bit repetetive. This in fact makes sense because sometimes the history of cancer really repeated itself. Like when surgeons believed that every breast cancer can be cured with radical mastectomy (often removing not just breasts but chunks of bones under it and surrounding muscles — leaving the woman crippled and not curing anything because the cancer had already metastasized) or when 70 years later doctors falsely believed that more and more potent chemotherapy has a higher chance of saving their patients but somehow missed that it might produce so severe site-effects that the cure was worse than the illness.

To sum it up, I think it is a good read for anyone interested in the topic of cancer. But bear in mind that it is not a book that much on biology but history. However, this might be a good thing because our public health is sometimes disconnected from the patient seeing her only as a problem to be solved. This book helps to see the landscape of cancer through more human eyes.

In the end, I would like to point out that it is not a super easy read. I usually read through a book in a week or two but this one took me several months during which there were weeks when I did not read a page from it. Just don't let this wear you down, allow information to sink. It can really broaden your perspective.