Lisa Vegan's Reviews > The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer

The Emperor of All Maladies by Siddhartha Mukherjee
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's review
Dec 30, 2012

it was amazing
bookshelves: history, non-fiction, science, reviewed, cancer
Read from July 21 to December 30, 2012 — I own a copy

I am not sure what to say about this book except that I think it’s a masterpiece. Though I took over five months to read it, I found everything about it fascinating.

I have to say that I felt an urgency to read this book before receiving a cancer diagnosis. My mother died of cancer before my twelfth birthday, and ever since then I’ve enjoyed reading books about cancer (fiction, biographies, general non-fiction, medical textbooks, all of them) and have been terrified about getting it. In fact, with my genes and some of my behaviors/environments, it’s amazing I’ve made it at least this far cancer free. I have a feeling if/when I get cancer, I won’t be as addicted to cancer themed books, at least not for entertainment purposes.

In 1965 my uncle, a doctor, said he thought that in a decade there would be a cure, and that nobody would die from cancer. Was he ever wrong! And the author of this book does a masterful job of explaining why, and why cancers are so complicated.

I enjoyed the quotes that started off each chapter, and how they stem from both science and literature. I admired how cancer is covered from the very personal (the author’s thoughts and perspective, and stories of a very few patients he’s known), the historical all the way through history, the research and its successes and failures, to date, the science, the various cancers touched on, so many aspects, and that’s very fitting for this subject, a biography of cancer. I would have liked a bit more on the individual patients, but since I wouldn’t want any cuts in the other portions, we’d most likely be talking about a 1,000 page book; actually, that would have been fine with me.

This book is definitely for laypeople, but for me it helped to have a bit of medical/oncology background/experience; it’s not necessary though. I often love books by doctor writers and I’ll definitely read (almost) all other books this author writes. He’s an excellent writer, I love his writing style, and he made every aspect of this subject so interesting.

I didn’t thoroughly read the notes pages 473-532 or the index pages 545-571, but I read everything else.

Highly recommended for anyone interested in cancer.
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Reading Progress

07/20/2012 page 1
0.0% "I've owned this book since it was first published. I'll be starting it later today or tomorrow, finally. I'm reading it at about the same time as at least one of my real world book club members."
07/21/2012 page 24
4.0% "I am loving this book. (it doesn't deserve the one typo and couple weird ink blotches I've noticed.) Fascinating information written in the most engaging way. Hard to put down but I'll resume tomorrow, I hope."
07/23/2012 page 37
6.0% "I'm loving this and I hope I have more time to read in the next few weeks. Though fascinating and not at all dense, I'm not zipping through it, so far."
07/25/2012 page 51
9.0% "Fascinating, but It's not a quick read like my last speculative fiction, ya) book. And I haven't had time to read. If I can tear myself away from the Olympics, I should have more time to read over the next few weeks. I do feel as though I'm back in my history of medicine class, but I did love that class, and I'm loving this book." 2 comments
08/03/2012 page 83
15.0% "Really interesting and well done. I hope to have time (and some quiet to read from it this weekend."
08/10/2012 page 116
20.0% "Excellent book. 5 star worthy so far."
08/20/2012 page 194
34.0% "Still a 5 star book so far."
08/31/2012 page 235
41.0% "So engagingly written! I'm a bit scared to read the next sections though. I sure wish I was as in good shape as I was just a bit over 8 years ago. And I suspect that reading about the tobacco companies is going to put me at risk of a stroke!"
12/02/2012 page 276
48.0% "It's so difficult to read about lung cancer & cigarettes, and yet there is more of that left. I am getting a clearer idea of the timeline with the tobacco companies, etc. etc. from the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, and into the present. INfuriating. Sad. I'm really enjoying this book though, but I'll be glad to get past the tobacco sections."
12/03/2012 page 291
50.0% "I think I am past the tobacco section, thank goodness, but cancer is still so scary. The book is fabulous, so far."
12/11/2012 page 337
59.0% "Fascinating book, and very scary reporting."
12/25/2012 page 384
67.0% "Would love to finish this, finally, before a cancer diagnosis. ;-) Also eager to really get into my current novel. Never but especially these last couple weeks of the year, I don't have an atmosphere conducive to reading easily. Unfortunately. At least my current books and on-deck books are ones I'm eager to get to. Anticipation!"
12/29/2012 page 412
72.0% "I've read what I'm going to read of the extra materials so I have less than 60 pages to go. I'd like to finish this tomorrow, and get back to my current novel, The Paper Doll Museum."

Comments (showing 1-32 of 32) (32 new)

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Lisa Vegan I may have to buy myself this book!! ASAP!

Phil James I have this this on my shelf and I think you've helped me to pluck up my courage, to read it next.

Lisa Vegan Phil wrote: "I have this this on my shelf and I think you've helped me to pluck up my courage, to read it next."

Phil, It's really excellent. I'm reading it slowly, but I'm reading everythig slowly nowadays; it's not a reflection on this book, not at all. I'll be curious what you think if you read it. If you start soon, at the rate I'm going, you might finish it before I do.

message 4: by Sunny12 (new)

Sunny12 I'd never heard of this book, sounds really interesting. You sound like you're really enjoying it :)

Lisa Vegan Simran wrote: "I'd never heard of this book, sounds really interesting. You sound like you're really enjoying it :)"

I am, Simran. Unfortunately, I've had no time to read this weekend. It's a long weekend so I hope to get back into it tomorrow, and maybe start a kids' novel as well.

message 6: by Sunny12 (new)

Sunny12 Good luck, Lisa :)

Lisa Vegan Simran wrote: "Good luck, Lisa :)"

Thanks. I'm now staying in the rest of the day because I have so much to do at home. Hopefully, it will include reading.

message 8: by Sunny12 (new)

Sunny12 Hey, Lisa ! How did your day go ? I hope you got some sleep & a good read in there somewhere :)

Lisa Vegan Hey, Simran. Good sleep, some reading, of several books, all different types of books. I can't read two novels at the same time. How about you?

message 10: by Sunny12 (new)

Sunny12 Just work so far, nothing fun yet. Am waiting for the weekend to be able to chill out a bit :) Thinking of hitting the bookstore, doing a bit of shopping ...

message 11: by Petar X (last edited Dec 31, 2012 10:28AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Petar X You read the book much faster than I did! I took an entire year.

What I got from the book were three things:

1) As successful treatments progress, more and more of us will be living with cancer, and
2) If we live long enough we will probably die eventually of cancer.
3) It will never be possible to have a panacea for all cancers.

message 12: by Lisa (last edited Dec 31, 2012 10:33AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Lisa Vegan I took away those things too, but especially #3. There have been successes, some amazing, with a very few cancers. For many, he used Atossa (I think in 500) as an example, the survival time would be no better now than then. But because they are sequencing the genes for various cancers, I do think more and more cancers will be treatable (your #1). I just know too many people who've died of cancer, including some dying now, and relatively few survivors in comparison, and once someone has had cancer, I am always worried about a recurrence, and I think they are too. But it was heartening to see all the work that's being done. I don't like the animal experiments but as far as the ones that don't use animals, he made it sound exciting to be a cancer researcher.

Petar X My mother died three years ago of cancer and like you I know too many people who have had it or have it now. Like you, I worry too.

message 14: by Lisa (last edited Dec 31, 2012 12:46PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Lisa Vegan Petra X wrote: "My mother died three years ago of cancer and like you I know too many people who have had it or have it now. Like you, I worry too."

Yes, when I was young, people were so scared they wouldn't even talk about it or say its name. I'm glad, at least in my circle, that has changed! So sorry about both our mothers. It's a horrible disease. I made up my mind at 12 I wouldn't die from it, but would hasten my death. Now, if I had minor kids (the way my mother did) I might not; I might have changed my mind. But I haven't.

message 15: by Chrissie (new) - added it

Chrissie I just might add this, although it scares me to death. My younger brother died of cancer. I don't know if i am brave enough to read it....

message 16: by Lisa (last edited Jan 01, 2013 12:34PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Lisa Vegan Chrissie wrote: "I just might add this, although it scares me to death. My younger brother died of cancer. I don't know if i am brave enough to read it...."

It's fascinating, Chrissie, but being scared is part of why it took me so long to read it. I LOVE reading medical things though and you usually hate reading medical things, so I don't know if this is for you.

May I ask what kind of cancer your brother had? (you can pm me if you prefer.) I ask because certain cancers are covered or mentioned in certain ways here, though not many overall, and I'm wondering if your brother's cancer is mentioned at all and, if how, how.

In addition to my mother dying when I was so young, I've know so many with cancer, and worked with many with cancer, children & teens & young adults included.

My reading of cancer is most likely a mastery things, similar to my extensive reading about the Holocaust. That's my guess anyway.

message 17: by Lisa (new) - rated it 5 stars

Lisa Vegan Recently, I read a ya novel I adored, about teens with cancer, narrated by a teen girl with cancer: The Fault in Our Stars.

message 18: by Lisa (new) - rated it 5 stars

Lisa Vegan Chrissie, in my opinion, though of course I'm not sure, this book might better be read on paper than read via audio.

message 19: by Chrissie (new) - added it

Chrissie Pls explain why, Lisa. It is so hard with paper books. I cannot take them with me which means I have to read two books at the same time, and I detest reading two books at the same time. It is not that I cannot keep them straight. It is not that I forget the details of each. I have discovered that it is because you don't envelope yourself into that other world as much if you read two. You are split. I have really been thinking about this. I love falling into another world, be it fact or fiction, that is not the issue for me. I think I appreciate books more if I read one at a time.

message 20: by Lisa (new) - rated it 5 stars

Lisa Vegan Chrissie, I'm not sure. Just the way it is structured. But I don't listen to audiobooks, though I might someday, so I don't really know. You're better off listening to someone who reads both ways, I suppose. I prefer reading one book at a time too, not counting picture books, art books, cookbooks. I can sometimes read one non-fiction and one fiction book at the same time, but I prefer one book at a time.

message 21: by Chrissie (new) - added it

Chrissie Me too!

Could you explain how it is structured. Your review doesn't say that. Again, thanks for your advice.

message 22: by Lisa (new) - rated it 5 stars

Lisa Vegan Chrissie, Well, as I said you might be better off listening to someone else, someone who reads both audio and paper books, or reading audiobook reviews of this book.

I don't know how to explain it. There is nothing extraordinary about the structure. He has long sections but he can also go between history and a historical figure and current research and current people and a fact and an antecdote and and and. It's beautifully written for a book of this type but I guess I can't quite imagine a narrator reading it out loud and being as riveted as I was to the pages. Unless the author reads it in which case I could see that working.

message 23: by Chrissie (new) - added it

Chrissie I listened to the beginning of the audiobook. The narrator was not the author, but it was clear and good. The first quote, well it spoke to me. I am still not sure though. i think it will freak me out too much.

message 24: by Lisa (new) - rated it 5 stars

Lisa Vegan Yes, I love reading medical books and you don't. I especially love reading cancer books. The quotes in this book are so good. I'm glad the audiobook narrator seems good.

message 25: by Chrissie (new) - added it

Chrissie You are so brave....

message 26: by Lisa (new) - rated it 5 stars

Lisa Vegan Chrissie wrote: "You are so brave...."

No, not really. For me it's a sort of comfort. I get scared too. But it's a mastery thing. Ditto with Holocaust books. Speaking of brave, you read those. I know it's different. We really could get cancer. But I'm someone who likes knowing as much as possible. And there is room for some hope in this book, not unrealistic (which would make me feel more scared) but reasons for hope. And then, yes, there are parts that could scare you. But the whole book is so fascinating. I'm really glad I read it.

message 27: by Chrissie (new) - added it

Chrissie I feel that I ought to read it. It is like one should be prepared.

message 28: by Lisa (new) - rated it 5 stars

Lisa Vegan Chrissie wrote: "I feel that I ought to read it. It is like one should be prepared."

Well, it's not a book on how to prevent cancer. It really is more bout the history of cancer. Fascinating though. I don't know that you SHOULD read it, but I admit I'd love to hear what you think of it, and how you feel as you read it/after you've read it.

message 29: by Chrissie (new) - added it

Chrissie Thanks for all your help, Lisa.

message 30: by Lilo (last edited Dec 30, 2015 11:06PM) (new) - added it

Lilo I purchased this book a few years ago but haven't read it yet.

Btw, I would urge everyone interested in cancer cures to read about Essiac tea. (There are several books on Essiac tea on Amazon.)

We read up on Essiac tea, in 2011, when my husband was--thank God falsely--diagnosed with cancer. We used Essiac tea on 3 of our cats (2 diagnosed with metastasized cancer, 1 diagnosed with a tumor in her belly believed to be cancer). The 2 cats with metastasized cancer had been severely ill for 9+ months and were more dead than alive by August 2012. We treated them with Essiac tea as a desperate, last attempt to save their lives.

Both cats improved within days (actually, within hours) and were all well by November 2012. Yet every time, the Essiac tea was discontinued (first, when my husband thought they no longer needed it but, then, several times when we were out of town and the petsitters did not administer it), the 2 cats with metastasized cancer relapsed, whereas the one with the tumor in her belly was o.k. The latter died last May, not of cancer but of old age. She was 20+ years old. (She had lost weight for a few weeks, stopped eating and drinking for 36 hours and died peacefully while being petted.) One of the metastasized-cancer cats never bounced back 100% when put back on the tea after being off it for a while but did fairly well. He died last November while we were out of town. The other metastasized-cancer cat always bounced back 100% when back on the tea. She remains symptom-free and is full of mischief.

However, we had one cat die (in July 2014) of abdominal lymphoma (a particularly nasty cancer, hardly responding to any treatment). Essiac tea did not help her. She died within 3 weeks. Yet we might have noticed too late that she had lost weight. We had a wildfire threatening our property at the time. Thus, it had been overlooked that the cat wasn't well.

Our vet also believes in the efficiency of Essiac tea. He called the recovery of our 2 metastasized-cancer cats a miracle that can only be explained with the Essiac tea. His wife is a cancer survivor. She survived breast cancer 12 years ago (while taking Essiac tea) and is now taking Essiac tea again for her diabetes (for which Essiac tea is also effective).

My husband and I take Essiac tea off and on for our chronic bladder problems. It seems to have a positive effect.

If anyone wishes to know more details, please send me a PM.

message 31: by Lisa (new) - rated it 5 stars

Lisa Vegan Lilo, It's a great book. I do recommend it.

I've never heard of Essiac tea but I think the best cure for cancer is prevention. I think most cancers, in most people at least, if they don't respond to treatments, and often even when they do, are really powerful and those cancer cells are sneaky. I've known and also worked with many cancer patients. If you're a fan of this tea the best thing you can do is try to get some researchers to study it and eventually do clinical trials. Of course, you can encourage individuals to use it as long as they check with their medical people to make sure there are no contraindications with what they might already be doing or how they already are.

message 32: by Lisa (new) - rated it 5 stars

Lisa Vegan Well, there are a lot of result links from a search:

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