bell'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
Mar 15, 2012

really liked it
bookshelves: country-usa, genre-reference, genre-medicine, genre-non-fiction
Read in March, 2012

An excellent, informative, and moving read.

I do have my criticisms: I would've liked more on how privilege affected treatments and research. I found it odd that homophobia wasn't at all mentioned in the passage describing the movement for AIDS research/help/medicine; surely the sadly prevalent view that ~the gays had brought it on themselves~ influenced its direction? Or how about the approaches to breast cancer; did seeing women as inferior beings back in the 1890s make it more acceptable to perform radical mastectomies, surgically removing muscles and sternums and whatever else they could? Would this practice have become so prevalent, would they have bothered to research its effectiveness sooner, had it been men at knifepoint? I'm sure these and other privileges had its impact on the development of cancer. The book is also incredibly US- and somewhat Europe- centric. Contributions from other countries are mentioned, but just barely. I know little about cancer research myself, but I remain skeptical that other regions did so little. Finally, I find it odd that he states cancer to be only four thousand years old-- that may be our earliest evidence for humans, but if it's encoded in our genome, don't other beings on this earth also face cancer? Animals today do; why wouldn't they before humanity? (I mean, think about it: dinosaurs with cancer!! ...which certainly sounds humorous, but wouldn't cancer also be lurking in their genes? I doubt it started with humans, is my point.)

Other than that, I'd recommend the book heartily. I knew so little about cancer before. I know so little about medicine, in fact! But not only does Mukherjee make the information accessible, it becomes as intriguing as a mystery novel. It's a whodunnit: who is this murderer named cancer and how did they do it? The answer is complex and incomplete (with our current knowledge/research) and yet incredibly simple. Cancer comes from changes in our DNA. By walking us through the history to that realization, Mukherjee explains the details quite well.

I also found the book helpful emotionally. Cancer is a disease, death, that surrounds us, threatening each one of us with our own lives and those dear to us. As an unknown, it is terrifying. Having learned more, cancer remains frightening, but now it is more of a known quantity to me. Knowing how it tics; how we fight it; how we might aim our future research; and, most of all, knowing somewhat to expect... it helps.
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