The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer

The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer by Dr. Siddhartha Mukherjee is just what the title states and more.

In fact, when I finished this book, all I could repeat was, Oh. My. Ghod!

I realize I probably say this quite a bit (there are notable exceptions, there is one), but, in this case, I was enthralled from the first word until the last.

Dr. Mukherjee doesn’t just write a dry, scholarly historical tome about cancer; instead, he creates a living, breathing dastardly enemy of the people, weaving his tale as a detective story worthy of Indiana Jones’ quest for the Lost Ark.

While the story of cancer isn’t just about doctors fighting against the disease but doctors fighting amongst themselves (is cancer a surgical problem or a problem to be treated with drugs?); the tobacco company suppressing research that their product caused lung cancer; the war between women and surgeons — some surgeons wanted to continuing mutilating women with the Halstead procedure of radical mastectomy while women wanted the more breast sparing lumpectomy.

And the list goes on. Cancer goes on.

We all carry the potential of cancer in our genes. I’m sure many of us have friends or family members enveloped by cancer’s evil tentacles. Cancer’s evil tale even touched my immediate family with my sister-in-law recently diagnosed with breast cancer — soon to undergo chemotherapy.

The quest for a cure for cancer has been a long one and certainly won’t be finished for decades to come. But there is hope on the horizon. I was particularly interested in Dr. Brian Druker of Oregon Health and Science University (OHSU) work with Gleevec (Imatinib), heralding the beginning of targeted therapy (which targets a specific enzyme) versus the tried and true chemotherapy that attacks all dividing cells, cancer or not.

But cancer cells are wily. Just one mutation can render even the mighty Gleevec powerless. Thankfully, there are other targeted therapies that can be offered when Gleevec is no longer effective. Despite all the gains medical science has made against cancer, it takes only the one mutated cancer cell to render a new therapy useless.

The war goes on.

Dr. Mukherjee wraps the narrative with his experience as an oncologist around one patient. Periodically, this patient would pop up during her various stages of cancer treatment. I was worried that the author wouldn’t be able to pull it all together in the end, but, much to my delight, he did.

This is a book well-worth reading for the medical historian like myself, but also very approachable for the layperson, although, the book can be technical.

I read the book on my iPhone 4S using the Kindle app from Amazon. The kindle file was impeccable (not like the Treating the Brain: What the Best Doctors Know — my review here) though I did catch one small burble; it wasn’t enough to detract from my overall enjoyment of the book.

I rate this book a solid 5/5 stars.

(Originally published on Live Journal: Serenade in Blue blog on 08 April 2012)

4 thoughts on “The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer”

  1. If you get a chance to see the PBS program on this, it’s also well worth the time.

    1. I not only have seen it but I recorded it. I thought they did a great job with the book.

  2. Have you read ‘The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks’ yet?

    If not, I think it’s worth reading in the same context as The Emperor of All Maladies.


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