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

The Emperor of All Maladies by Siddhartha Mukherjee
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Apr 26, 2011

it was amazing

Everyone should read this book. It’s not just for those who are struggling with cancer personally, or have loved ones who do, or those who work on the treatment/care for cancer. We have read the statistics about the toll that caner is taking on human life, but I doubt people fully realize what the nature and scope of cancer are. Cancer is death, but it’s also life and growth and reproduction. Cancer is us – literally us. I thought I know this, but I really didn’t until I read this book.

The book is mean to be a “biography” of cancer. It starts off with the history of the disease in the ancient times. Not much to say there. Then it moves into the 19th, and then 20th century where it spends most of its time – not just on science and medicine, but also politics and activism of the “War on Cancer.” If you have too much faith in the medical sciences, this book will cure you of it. You see how for decades and decades doctors and scientists didn’t really have any clue about what they were doing and what cancer really is. They moved from treatment to treatment. They caused cancer thinking they were curing it. They hacked and disfigured their patients who would die of cancer later anyway – if they survived the surgery. They poisoned their patients to the brink of death hoping to kill the cancer cells. Decades passed, and once they compiled the statistics, they realized that no real progress had been made.

Things are only slightly better now. Unlocking the mysteries of cancer is unlocking the mysteries of life itself. Knowing what an intrinsic part of our biology it is can only give us despair in our fight against it. Only recently scientists have been able to understand some inner aspects of cancer and offer nontoxic medication for a few specific types of cancer. Cancer treatment, by and large, still is: take this poison (chemotherapy), chop off a part of your body, get fried by radiation – and good luck. A biography is supposed to end with the death of its subject, but not this one. We may have to accept that our war on cancer will not end in a victory. Our best chance may be a ceasefire on good terms – controlling it until we live close to what is considered a normal human life span.

Mukherjee is a knowledgeable scientist, a great writer, and a compassionate doctor. This book is very well-written and well-researched. It reads like a gripping detective novel. It gets a bit difficult and scientific at times, but there’s no avoiding it. Know thy enemy – which is the same as know-thyself in this case. This book both breaks your heart and gives a glimmer of hope at the same time. In the end, we have to accept that we’re mortals. Consider it an irony that the caner that brings us death rises from the same forces that gave us life.
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