The emperor of all maladies : a biography of cancer

by Siddhartha Mukherjee

Paper Book, 2010

Status

Available

Publication

New York : Scribner, c2010.

Description

A magnificently written "biography" of cancer--from its origins to the epic battle to cure, control, and conquer it.

Media reviews

It's time to welcome a new star in the constellation of great doctor-writers. With this fat, enthralling, juicy, scholarly, wonderfully written history of cancer, Siddhartha Mukherjee - a cancer physician and researcher at Columbia University - vaults into that exalted company ...

User reviews

LibraryThing member kidzdoc
Dr. Siddhartha Mukherjee, a professor of medicine at Columbia University and a rising star in the field of cancer biology, is the author of this excellent story of cancer from antiquity to the present day, which was selected as one of The 10 Best Books of 2010 by The New York Times and is my personal selection for the best nonfiction book I have read this year.

Mukherjee begins the book with the story of Carla Reed, a young kindergarten teacher and mother, who has been ill with vague symptoms for the last month and awakens one day with an ominous sense that something serious is wrong with her. She sees her physician and requests blood work to determine the cause of her illness. The following morning her world is turned completely upside down, as she learns that the complete blood count drawn in the office is highly suggestive of acute leukemia. She is admitted to Massachusetts General Hospital, as she leaves the world of the healthy and enters the realm of the SICK, as technicians, phlebotomists, nurses and doctors swarm to her bedside to ask questions and perform tests. Later that morning she meets Dr. Mukherjee, who oversees her care and shares her story throughout this book.

The story of cancer begins in ancient Egypt, as the famed physician Imhotep describes a malady that presents as "a bulging mass in the breast" amongst other medical conditions. Imhotep provides therapeutic remedies for the other illnesses, but for the breast mass he writes, "There is none." The first definitive treatment of breast cancer occurs centuries later in Persia, as Queen Atossa's cancerous breast is surgically removed by a slave in the first recorded mastectomy, performed without the benefit of anesthesia or antisepsis.

The history of cancer is intimately linked to the history of medicine, and the reader learns about the different types of solid cancers and leukemias as they are understood in the context of history, first as an imbalance in one of the body's four humors, and then as an abnormal proliferation of cells distinct in appearance from normal ones. Mukherjee skillfully portrays the important medical and scientific researchers as sleuths who independently and collaboratively attempt to track down an elusive killer, while also describing the lives of former patients including "Jimmy", the Boston youth whose story inspired millions of Americans to donate to cancer research through The Jimmy Fund, and private citizens such as Mary Lasker, a New York socialite whose tireless efforts transformed the moribund American Society for the Control of Cancer to the powerful and influential American Cancer Society.

Unfortunately, the benefits of most of these advances in medical knowledge throughout most of the 20th century are short lived in most cases, as the majority of patients suffered relapses and recurrences. Mukherjee portrays the despair felt by patients, their families and cancer researchers, contrasted with the hope that significant decreases in cancer mortality would eventually be achieved, through medical research and therapies and, more importantly, from advancements in early diagnostic techniques and in prevention of risk factors such as smoking and excess consumption of alcohol.

The last quarter of the book describes the advances in cancer biology as it is understood on the molecular level to be a disease of uncontrolled cellular growth due to the effect of oncogenes and tumor suppressor genes. Mukherjee leaves us with hope for the future of the treatment of cancer, as it will likely be either curable or a relatively easily treatable chronic disease.

I found [The Emperor of All Maladies] to be as compelling as a well written mystery novel, one filled with interesting characters and unexpected plot twists, along with interesting and understandable discussions of science and medicine. Dr. Mukherjee has done a masterful job in writing this book, and I would highly recommend it to all readers.
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LibraryThing member cameling
With the progression of medical research, man has been able to successfully eradicate diseases such as small pox and polio, prevent the previously fatal consequences of measles,influenza and HIV, among others, but while progress has been made in cancer treatment and research, it still remains an illness that strikes fear in the hearts of many.

This biography traces cancer, from its appearance more than four thousand years ago and the attempts to understand it, control it, prevent it and cure it that continue into this Century. While it is clearly written with compassion, the author doesn't pull any punches with details on the ravages wrought by the vicious disease and some of the drastic attempts at putting a stop to the aggressive invasion of these mutant cells in the human body.

It's fascinating, horrifying, saddening and yet hopeful. It gave me a better understanding of the disease in all its forms, and more importantly, I'm comforted that there are organizations and individuals still determined to find better treatments leading to perhaps a cure in the near future.
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LibraryThing member BrandonJBudd
Mukherjee succeeds in penning both an accessible and compelling account of the history of cancer and cancer-research by treating the topic as a narrative. Perhaps the narrative is fundamental to any biography, but Mukherjee avoids any pitfalls of dry or rote recounting of scientific fact by grounding the tale in the lives of individuals. Rather than simply starting from the first initial recordings of cancer in early Greek writings, Mukherjee starts with himself beginning a prestigious oncological fellowship at Massachusetts General Hospital. Thus the tale is very much the tale of Mukherjee as one person in a line of many who have dealt with cancer.

By initially grounding the story in the present, Mukherjee is able to jump back-and-forth from the linear history of struggles to understand and treat cancer to the present where Mukherjee is working with individuals who are struggling with this same historic disease. Mukherjee's penchant for summating and outlining unique characteristics of individuals helps make the ravages, successes, and ongoing struggles come to life.

The author's ability to humanize those who have struggled with cancer elucidates the difficulties, nuances, and abstractions of this disease which has so often persisted in a cloak of mystery. What is revealed is not any less terrifying nor does it paint a picture of a disease about to be subdued by the might of ever-heightened scientific advantages. But Mukherjee's story seems more about human dynanicism than that of hero slaying the beast. The word "struggle" dots my review and that ultimately is the testament of this work. It is a story of human struggle against a disease that comes more from within than it does without. It's the struggles of the inability to find a "curative" factor. It is the success of scientific breakthrough and the struggle as one realizes that the breakthrough is limited. More than anything, it is the struggle of the individual coping with a diagnosis that feels at times damning. And from that struggle the attempts to shrug off these fatal bonds and live regardless... even if only for a few months. It is about the struggles of chemotherapy, radiation, and radical surgery that bring the body to the very brink just as they seek to cure. And finally, it is the struggle of Mukherjee and people like Mukherjee. People who try so, so hard to cope with this persistent and tenacious disease. People bright-eyed and eagerly full of hope. But successes are in small increments. This does not make them any less worthwhile. Indeed, it is this element of partial success that seems so very human.
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LibraryThing member booksmitten
This is a post-apocalyptic zombie novel that is unequivocally influenced by William Faulkner, from its style to its themes to some plot points and the names of its two main characters, not to mention most of the bit parts. When I noticed the names Temple and Maury in the review, I knew the author was up to something. I might go so far as to call it a mash-up, IF there weren't so many of those floating around after a certain zombie mash-up became a bestseller. And I'd argue that it's better than all of them.

Temple is a great character, and there is a long journey to deliver a body -- in this case a living one -- through a landscape of walking dead, to a family that may or may not still be there. She grapples with her identity, with her baser instincts, with her perceptions of God and duty and right and wrong in a broken world. History is a living, swirling thing, and "The past is never dead. It's not even past." In fact, it's still walking around. Aldon Bell also channels Faulkner when he describes so lyrically the bits of beauty that are always ensconced in decay, and the broad sweeping descriptions of the horizon and the road and the land.

"She raises her gaze and her eyes blur teary in the cool wind and all the lights of the city go wild and multiple, and she wipes her eyes and sits in one of the chairs and looks out beyond the periphery of the power grid where the black rolls out like an ocean."

Despite the fact that it borders on derivative much of the time, I found this book to be enjoyable, thought-provoking, smart, and occasionally really beautiful. I would have never thought that I'd read a zombie novel, but look at that, the pigs are flying.

It felt pretty episodic, which is neither here nor there. And I didn't like the last two sentences. But oh well. It is totally worth reading.
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LibraryThing member The_Hibernator
The Emperor of All Maladies is a sweeping “biography” of cancer covering archeological/ancient history to present-day. It is very well-informed, well written, and thorough. Definitely worth a read for anyone who is interested in the history of cancer or medicine. Well-deserving of the Pulitzer Prize it won in 2011. I think it was written with the popular reader in mind (he DOES tell us what DNA is at the beginning of the book), but the book quickly delves into terminology and topics that I suspect would be very heavy to someone who doesn’t already know a little about biology/medicine. This is especially true in the second half of the book. Mukherjee also is SO thorough that the book becomes extremely long, which is difficult for those of us with a short attention span. Also, I got great amusement out of his formulaically inserted personal patient pieces. It was good that he had them (they broke up the difficult scientific passages) but I could tell that they were written by a scientist and not a journalist (i.e. they were comprised of literal rather than emotive descriptions). Being a scientist myself, this made me chuckle (alas! an emotion). However, I think the personal patient pieces were interesting and elicited enough emotion to engage the readers. They worked for me, anyway. 4/5 stars… (more)
LibraryThing member michelle_bcf
At 470+ pages, this is quite an intimidating book, but as it's the winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Non-Fiction 2011, I was keen to give it a try. Fortunately it's a well written, interesting book, and I wasn't disappointed.

The author covers every aspect imaginable, delving into history, and bringing things right up to date. He covers the history of surgical intervention, in particular looking at the extent surgeons went to clear breast cancer. There's also a lot of detail about the development of chemotherapy, and again it's frightening to see how far clinicians were willing to go.

There's a large section covering lung cancer, and the fight against the tobacco companies. It's amazing to read that some doctors explored the evidence and gave up smoking straight away, whilst others had such a strong addiction, they were unable to. There's also a section looking at the discovery of 'pre-cancerous' cells and early changes, and the development of smear tests and mammograms.

There is a lot of medical and scientific detail in the book. I'm a nurse myself, but I haven't worked in the field of oncology. My background did help, but the author does try to make this detail fairly simple to follow and understand.

I think the biggest selling point of this book is that it will appeal to many people, from medical doctors and scientists, to lay people with an interest.

Well written and recommended.
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LibraryThing member markfinl
This book is a stunning achievement. A history of cancer, cancer treatment, the public policy response to cancer, it is truly exhaustive in scope. Mukherjee is an oncologist, and he combines both his vast knowledge with his deeply moving experiences in treating patients. It is this combination that makes the book so satisfying, both intellectually and emotionally. Now I know more about both the disease of cancer as well as what it is to experience the disease of cancer than I ever thought possible. Mukherjee's talents as an author are considerable as well. He has an almost unerring sense to know when to pull back to discuss the big picture of cancer treatment and research and when to focus in on the specifics of a patient's particular disease. I will say that he does get a bit bogged down at one point discussing the genetic aspects of cancer. Since Mukherjee describes himself as a lab rat, it is understandable that he devotes considerable time to cancer research, but I felt there was a bit too much detail for the lay reader. This is a minor flaw, however. The book is not for the squeamish, the section on mastectomy surgery was especially difficult, but other than that I would urge anyone to read this.… (more)
LibraryThing member acook
I save my 5 star reviews for "OMG, you HAVE to read this book.". I can't imagine anyone, unless you have absolutely zero interest in biology/medicine/cancer, not finding this book fascinating. And if you have any passing knowledge at all with those fields, you'll be riveted.

The book covers the history of cancer, and the attempts to understand it's cause and to cure it from ancient times to the present. It is written in a highly readable style for the layman, and even when it gets to the present and into molecular biology, the material is presented in an easy to understand format.

One especially interesting section tells of the controversy that developed when trying to determine if cigarette smoke caused lung cancer. It seems so obvious now, but it took quite a while to prove it. The author makes it a very entertaining story.

I strongly urge anyone to read this book. It's easily one of the best books, fiction or nonfiction, I've read in 2010.
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LibraryThing member mountie9
The Good Stuff

* I won't lie, when I opened up the mail and saw this my first thought was WTF - pulizter prize winner, hello this is not my thing. I am not an overly intelligent women and well quite frankly was thinking dullsville. Well, I was very, very wrong!
* This is brilliantly written and relatively easy to understand -- even for me
* I was so fascinated and learned so much I actually found it difficult to put down
* Medical information is in depth, interesting and written in more layman terms - which very much surprising
* Incredibly well researched & some fantastic notes and detailed index (yes I know its geeky but I am an anal Library Technician
* Fascinating to see the denial through history of the connection between tobacco and cancer -- especially from educated medical personal
* Horrified and disgusted at times of all the research done on unsuspecting patients, even knowing the benefits it had in the medical field
* Actually teared up a couple of times which very much surprised me
* The author has a very honest, sensitive and personal manner which is a rarity in a Dr (Trust me I have spent my whole life surrounded by those in the medical profession)
* The writing is almost lyrical which again surprised me
* Cancer really does suck ass & hopefully one day we will kick its ass

The Not so Good Stuff

* At times it jumps from time frame to time frame which was a little disconcerting
* Some noticeable repetition - better editing would have made it a tighter piece of writing

Favorite Quotes/Passages

"As a doctor learning to tend cancer patients, I had only a partial glimpse of this confinement. But even skirting its periphery, I could still feel its power-the dense, insistent gravitational tug that pulls everything and everyone into the orbit of cancer."

"When Wynder presented his preliminary ideas at a conference on lung biology in Memphis, not a singles question or comment came from the members of the audience, most of whom had apparently slept through the talk or cared too little about the topic to be roused. IN contrast, the presentation that followed Wynder's, on an obscure disease called pulmonary adenomatosis in sheep, generated a lively, half hour debate."

"Germaine fought cancer obsessively, cannily, desperately, fiercely, madly, brilliantly, and zealously - as if channeling all the fierce, inventive energy of generations of men and women who had fought cancer in the past and would fight it in the future."

Who should/shouldn't read

* Anyone who has been affected in any way by Cancer
* All medical professional dealing with Cancer
* So yeah, its pretty much required reading for everyone over the age of 16 (Terminology and subject matter might be hard to deal with by those younger than 16)

4.5 Dewey's

I received this from Simon and Schuster in exchange for an honest review
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LibraryThing member bookworm12
This ambitious, nonfiction book chronicles the history and development of cancer and its treatments. It provides a complete overview of the disease, which people have battled for the past 4,000 years.

I connected with some of the personal cases, but the constant stream on scientific minutia, tests, studies, etc. lost my interest a few times. Mukherjee opens and closes the book with the case of a young kindergarten teacher, Carla Reed, which provides the perfect bookends to the onslaught of info.

I don’t know how much of the detailed info will stick, but it was so interesting. There were certainly some graphic parts, which is to be expected with a medical topic. I couldn’t believe some of the medieval methods used as treatments for years. Bleeding patients, loping off body parts, acid burns, etc. were all acceptable, which is horrific.

I also couldn’t believe how long cancer has been around. There are fossils and mummies with cancerous tumors. There are even texts describing breast cancer in ancient Egypt and a Persian queen.

It’s unbelievable how many advances have been made in the past couple decades. It wasn’t that long ago that many refused to believed smoking cigarettes could in anyway cause cancer.

One of the most disturbing aspects of the book is learning how common cancer is becoming. The author notes that one day soon we may not wonder IF we will get cancer, but instead we’ll wonder WHEN. As someone who has watched both of her parents struggle with different cancers and losing one to Leukemia, I see his observation in a very real way. To me, this book was incredibly meaningful because it was a chance to better educate myself on the topic and I would recommend it to anyone else interested in doing the same.
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LibraryThing member wester
There are a lot of interesting facts here, and I also like how he shows that curing cancer is less straightforward than putting a man on the moon.

However, there were just enough details that were wrong to make me wonder if there are any other details that are just as wrong but I don't notice because I don't have enough background.
One thing was his description of the first prospective trial about the link between smoking and cancer. Take a large group of people, wait a few years, and after this time 36 people have died from lung cancer. All 36 are smokers. And now the writer of this book suggests that this (more or less) settles the issue, without even mentioning that the fact that 4 out of 5 people smoked at that time considerably weakens the argument.
Another is his total ignoring of any issues about nutrition. True, at the end he spends two or three sentences about such details as the link between eating fibre and colon cancer, but there is no evidence anywhere that he has even considered that the Western diet as a whole may contribute to cancer. I suspect he believes it doesn't, but he doesn't give any arguments, he just ignores it.

So, as I don't know what else he has missed, I don't know how much of the information here I can trust. Which is a pity, as it is definitely an interesting subject.
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LibraryThing member jcbrunner
When death approaches in Western countries, the choice is between heart disease and cancer. A choice often made by one's own cells, an effect of evolution's unplanned planned obsolescence and lifestyle choices. Mankind seems to finally approaching some kind of victory on the War on Cancer, so often promised but not fulfilled. At the same time, the obesity bulge explodes the number of heart patients. Nevertheless, in the field of oncology, it is time for a little bit of celebration. Siddhartha Mukherjee's excellent history of the different approaches of cancer treatment is an uplifting success story, despite the enormous number of casualties in the war(s) against cancer. This war of attrition, of cohort after cohort being killed by their own body, makes for ghastly reading. Hermann Hesse's Siddhartha said "I can wait.", a luxury a cancer patient does not have. Cancer is a nasty, brutal malady, a destroyer from within, that is fought with the full arsenal of medicinal weaponry: surgery, poison, radiation. Despite the positive medical advances, it is still a story of human suffering, of too many casualties, of lives and dreams cut short.

Mukherjee expertly shows that better understanding of the disease leads to better treatment. Surgery was the first modern marvel used against cancer. Cut, cut, cut. Then radiation and chemical poisoning. Finally, with the understanding of cellular activities and modern genetics, truly targeted treatments that actually work are possible. What was incurable just one or two generations ago becomes manageable even curable (but at an extremely high cost for the expertise and machinery deployed).

Mukherjee's story is also a celebration of the lab rats (human and murine). The mousy technicians with little to no patient interaction who nevertheless solved the puzzles of cancer are the true heroes of this book. While the book suffers from a US-centricity (whereas cancer research is a global undertaking), it is a splendid work both in the history of medicine and invention. Highly recommended.
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LibraryThing member Carolee888
This is a terrific guide through the recognition, treatment and sometimes cure of cancer throughout history.It reads like a mystery with clues, some blue herrings and some solid evidence but always fascinating.
It is strange to say that the history of something so horrible as the "big C" should be that way.

My family, I thought had escaped its deadly spell of caner. In the last few years, one of my cousins died of breast cancer and another cousin has recently completed her treatment against invasive breast cancer also I have what if I am unfortunate could turn into a treatable but not curable cancer. I have learned that cancer is the enemy of everyone's family.

It would be impossible to tell the story of all the cancers because as the book states "cancer is a variety of diseases". But the author does weave in a great variety of different kinds of cancer. And each one must be
treated with its own unique and appropriate treatment. I appreciate the tremendous amount of work it must have taken to pull all that together and to check and double check all the historical references,

Most of the history of cancer is not that old. A lot of what is known about cancer has been in my own lifetime. Siddhartha Mukerjee, a cancer researcher, himself makes this history more personal with stories of the sufferers and the researchers and oncologists.

The history of breast cancer treatment is full of so many controversies and the author corrected some false ideas that I had. The history of the fight against lung cancer includes not only the war with the tobacco companies that most people are aware of but also an unsuspected villain.

I appreciate the tremendous amount of work it must have been to pull all this information together in one book.

I recommend this book to anyone interested in the historical side of medicine and those who want to understand the process of progress in medicine.
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LibraryThing member chillybee
This is a powerful book. It took me a long time to read it because I could only manage 100 pages at a time without being overwhelmed. At times it was as gripping as a murder mystery. Other times it inundated the reader with concepts and facts that were hard for a layman to take in. Always the reader is struck by the brutal, implacable nature of this disease. All of this is wrapped in elegant prose. The author respects the reader too much to end on a note of false optimism. But he is not offering despair either, just realism and respect for the challenges that cancer throws at us. If you want to learn about cancer, this is the book to read.… (more)
LibraryThing member sriram_shankar
A fascinating insight into mankind's efforts to find the right direction, the right way to fight cancer. I am not a cellular biologist, but every minute spent reading that book had me riveted. A must read for everyone.
LibraryThing member gooutsideandplay
This book overwhelmed and exhausted me with its technical and historical detail -- but at every juncture when I felt I simply couldn't go on -- there would be a personal story about one of Mukherjee's own patients, or some pivotal historical figure and this would always pull me back. At the end, I'm so glad I pressed on. It is an engrossing, moving, stunning achievement of medical history. There is a part at the end where Mukherjee traces one woman's cancer if it was experienced in ancient Egypt, though the middle ages, Victorian times and up to the present that encapsulates this entire amazing tapestry. Last, Mukherjee points out that as cancer is us, an integral part of our genetic humanity, we will be perpetual partners in a dance of prevention, cure, and hopefully, complete understanding with this emperor of all maladies.… (more)
LibraryThing member DanielJSinger
As a cancer survivor, I felt I had to read this book. It is an understatement to say I'm glad I did. Even though I haven't had to have any treatment for 18 years now, I never gave it too much thought about how cancer could have happened in the first place, beyond what the doctors told me.

This book changed all that.

Siddhartha Mukherjee pulls no punches with his thorough and detailed descriptions of how cancer has been viewed, researched, and otherwise studied throughout the ages.

Both historical and personal viewpoints are shared as the author talks about why people have tried to understand cancer and why people face cancer the ways they do.

Although the book was hard for me to read at times, that is more about my discomfort when it comes to medical detail than it is about the writing. The writing is wonderful both when it delves into the medical detail or when it shapes the emotions ever-present in the history, the patients, the doctors, the researchers, and everyone else involved in fighting the war on cancer.

The author has done the world a great service by writing this chronicle, and definitely deserved all the praise and awards he received for writing this book.
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LibraryThing member Kelslynn
By way of background, I was diagnosed with Stage 2 B breast cancer nine years ago.Doctors presented the facts to me, but I was totally dazed and overwhelmed: first, by the diagnosis, second, by the extent of the treatment and third, by the loss of control of my life. I desperately desire a cure for breast cancer NOW, but having read this book I see many of the problems with dealing with all kinds of cancers. No two people with the same kind of cancer may have compatible treatments, based on the wide variety of factors that influence the origin, the type, the genes involved.

This book underscores the fact that there is NO ONE cure for all cancers.It underscores the fact that researchers, molecular biologists, drug businesses, surgeons, oncologists, and even politicians need to work TOGETHER for a cure.

Keep on keeping on, you guys!
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LibraryThing member annbury
This is a fascinating discussion of the history of the treatment of cancer, mostly in the US and the UK, and mostly in the last 100 years. The author's examination of the twists and turns of research efforts to "cure cancer" is illuminating, and has a great deal to say to the current health care debate in the U.S. To a horrifying extent, the direction of cancer research -- and the treatments applied as a result of that research -- have NOT reflected objective scientific appraisal. Instead, they have been driven by the convictions and psychologies of the doctors directing the research. At the end of the book, I at least was convinced a) that progress in "curing cancer" has been disappointing, and b) that there is a crying need for evidence-based medical evaluation, in this and in so many other areas.

The book is splendidly written -- clear on the facts, and upfront in dealing with the emotions that are inevitably involved in such a subject. That doesn't mean that it is an easy read. As a cancer survivor and a former smoker, I found it at times painful and frightening to read, but I am glad I kept at it. Knowing more about a problem is always a good idea, and the issues around cancer are very much clarified by this book.
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LibraryThing member arubabookwoman
"Was human cancer caused by an infectious agent? Was it caused by an exogenous chemical? Was it caused by an internal gene? How could three groups of scientists have examined the same elephant and returned with such radically variant opinions...?"

This "biography" of cancer, described by the author as a "borderless gulag", is a multifaceted masterpiece. It examines cancer from a historical, personal, and medical perspective, and from the points of view of patients, doctors, researchers, and anyone else affected by cancer. It explores cancer in the context of its treatment, curative and palliative, its causes, and its prevention.

It considers medical ethics--what should researchers do when an experimental treatment is showing strong signs of success? Is it fair to continue the experiment to the detriment of the control patients? Have some of the horrors of previous treatment methods been justified?

It relates how time and again certain advances have occurred after creative thinking has led to a leap of faith by a scientist willing to ignore conventional wisdom, and how time after time advances come as the result of the day-to-day tedium of unnamed scientists following strict protocols.

I am not a scientist, but for the most part I could with careful reading understand the author's clear descriptions of the scientific information, principles and experiments. (Even if I can't explain them to anyone else). This book is by no means dry--it is full of interesting characters and events, and at times reads like a mystery. Highly recommended.
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LibraryThing member patrickgarson
The Emperor of All Maladies is an astonishing book, attempting to grapple the diversity of cancer, historically, socially, and - predominantly - scientifically in a mere 550 or so large, densely-packed pages. The fact Mukherjee largely achieves this feat - and with such thought, craft and erudition both medical and literary - makes this an excellent book and well-deserved Pulitzer Prize winner.

Mukherjee is an oncologist himself, and the book begins with a patient of his. The conceit of using a kind of "everyman" narrative to lever the reader into the more factual aspects of science books is a well-trodden path, but Mukherjee quickly heads off into the scrub. Before you can gather breath, he has dived into ancient medical history with Galen, skipped across into a lucid description of leukaemia's ravages, then jumped into the 1950s to chart the evolution of cancer fund-raising and advocacy.

Such a tempestuous approach, leaping across eras and subjects, has the potential to make a dizzying gallimaufry of cancer, but Mukherjee is tracing links with a true biographer's eye. This intuitive, superficially orthogonal approach, gives the book an organic, somewhat free-wheeling approach that both invigorates the reader, and mirrors the chaotic spread of a cancer itself.

It took a while for me to become accustomed to these diverse peregrinations - especially when they occur in the space of just a few pages - but by around the third chapter, I was hooked. Cancer presents such a diversity of symptoms, yet its ultimate conclusion is all too predictable. The wending, stuttering course of discovery left me just as invested in the quest to understand this baffling disease as the heroic scientists working to enlighten the world and save lives.

And there are so many scientists. The Emperor of Maladies didn't just gift me with an understanding and overview of cancer itself, but also a terrific overview of how science is made and built upon. Mukherjee gives everyone their due, and so many fascinating, dedicated - and, yes, noble - people inhabit the pages, making a panoply of discoveries from the 1800s to 2010.

The urgency, brilliance, and dedication of these biologists, oncologists and other researchers is inspiring enough, but the medical riddles they confront - elucidated clearly and with ferocious economy by Mukherjee - represent another source of intrigue and fascination.

But this is not to imply that the patient is elided. On the contrary, the book is peppered with patients - from Mukherjee's own, to the amazing story of the Jimmy Fund and its eponymous mascot. Using patients as a touchstone for readers is by no means an unusual device, but where The Emperor of Maladies really impressed me was with its sociological understanding of patients and the role of sickness in their lives. Mukherjee has clearly given much thought to how science and medicine interact with life outside the test tube, life in the wards, and beyond. His musings on this topic represent the most personal, lyrical, and some of the most emotive in the book. His empathy is obvious, but he refuses to stop there, and places patient and doctor attitudes to each other (and cancer) in historical, social and political contexts; yet another thematic smorgasboard in this embarrassment of riches.

After reading the rhapsody above, you might think the book is perfect, that's not quite the case. With the onset of genetic technology and the explosion of knowledge in the fields of microbiology, the last quarter of the book gets into some pretty full-on science, and the finer intricacies of DNA, RNA, kinases and more may give a casual reader some pause. Of course, I would argue that anyone who has picked up The Emperor of All Maladies - and made it to page 400 - is no longer casual, if they even started out that way, and persevering with the complexity brings its own rewards.

Overall, The Emperor of All Maladies is in someways attempting the impossible. How do you write a "biography" of cancer? It presents the ultimate moving target: mercurial, confusing, as multifarious as humanity itself. The book is staggeringly ambitious when you really think about it. But what is more staggering is that Mukherjee achieves victory over this most difficult and confronting of biographical subjects. By almost any token The Emperor of All Maladies is a success. There are certainly other books as encyclopaedic and rich with information, but there are precious few that present their facts in such a considered, well-written and organic fashion. An excellent book that both challenged me, and taught me so much, above and beyond cancer.
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LibraryThing member rosalita
I finished this very hefty (more than 700 pages, not counting endnotes and bibliography) just hours before the Overdrive fairy godmother turned my library e-copy back into a pumpkin. While the book took me a while to read (10 days, which is an eternity for me), it was certainly not due to its readability or the interest I had in the material. The book's subtitile, "A biography of cancer," sounds like a gimmick but is actually pretty much right on. Mukherjee ranges from ancient Egypt to modern America as he explores how the diseases we now lump together as cancer have slowly given up some of their secrets to the doctors and scientists seeking "magic bullets" to vanquish them forever.

I am not a science nerd but I found the science-y bits quite easy to follow. Some of the descriptions of the treatments that were thought to be effective in earlier times are gruesome but merely reflect the state of what was known about biology and medicine at the time. It was fascinating to read about how the "war on cancer" has waxed and waned with the political tides, and how that elusive that goal of a permanent cure still is, even as we continue to expand the boundaries of our knowledge about what causes cancer to emerge in any given body and how it grows and spreads.
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LibraryThing member -Cee-
This is an amazingly clear book for lay people about the history and future hope of cancer. So well written, it is highly readable though you need to pay close attention as the discoveries become more complicated. A comprehensive description of the disease, the research, the treatments, and hopes for cure is laid out logically and compassionately.

Cancer is known to have afflicted the human race at least 4000 years. The understanding of what was happening and how to respond has evolved from crude to complicated. The public has been crying out for a cure to this frightening and isolating monster of death. Though it sometimes doesn't seem it, that cry is being heard and addressed around the world. Mukherjee, an oncologist, has outlined very clearly the advances in our theories, treatments, and results over the centuries. In addition to the science, he has interspersed the sense of human angst and fighting spirit by citing personal cases and touching stories. He is a physician of sensitivity and hope.

The research and critical knowledge of cancer has come slowly for many reasons, e.g., we didn't even have an inkling of what cells were, nevermind how they behaved. There wasn't time to perform scientific studies and save lives at the same time. Many were dying waiting for the answers... and still are. But we have come a very long way and it is obvious as the reader proceeds through this book.

The hope offered at the end of this work is not magical nor unrealistic. We have approached a time where it is possible for some types of cancer to be controlled for a normal life span. The secrets are unravelling. Highly recommended.
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LibraryThing member Capfox
If there’s one disease these days that still has the power to really frighten people, I’d say it’s cancer. There’s no shortage of diseases that no one wants to contract, certainly, but it’s cancer that seems the most dramatic, cancer that represents the inward turning of the body against itself, cancer that is the subject of test upon test upon test, of our bodies and the things we surround ourselves with, cancer that seems somehow emblematic of our times. Where so many of the diseases of the past have been kept at bay for a long time now, cancer largely continues unabated.

It seems odd to set out on a project where the aim is to write the biography of a disease, but Mukherjee makes the case that as he addressed the history of cancer, it came to have a character unto itself, and it felt more like a description of a person. Indeed, he argues that cancer is in some sense the striving, energetic, evolved form of our cells, just one step beyond who we are now, and it’s precisely that character that makes it so difficult to defeat. Targeting what is essentially a funhouse version of ourselves, our genes with no brakes and a charge to keep going at a feverish pace, makes for perhaps the supreme medical challenge.

That marking of the character of the disease is not new to Mukherjee, but it’s well presented in his prose, and the overall work is magisterial, a lucid tale of haltingly learning the mysteries of a wide-spread disease through the past couple of centuries and trying to work out how to respond. He notes that cancer has been known since ancient Egypt (where the premier physician Imhotep quoted its treatment as “there is none”), and has been fleetingly heard from through history, but it is only comparatively recently that science really took a target on the disease, realizing that diseases that present themselves as differently as leukemia and pancreatic cancer may be underlyingly the same disease. Mukherjee lays out in detail both the scientific drive to work more on cancer – and as always, I’m amazed at how much was known already by the end of the 19th century, even if there was a long way to go – alongside the attempts to raise consciousness of cancer within wider society and gain funding and support.

The tale develops along several threads over the course of the book, generally focusing on different approaches to treatment that came about over time, and pulling the story forward as they did: surgery and radiology, chemotherapy, prevention, and the look for the underlying cause of cancer in genetics. Each section introduces a vivid batch of characters, researchers that crop up repeatedly across the history of cancer like Sidney Farber, Tom Frei and Emil Freireich, William Halsted, and others, alongside the people championing the cause, such as Mary Lasker, and how it tied into the politics of the time. There was a real gung-ho spirit evoked, against the human backdrop of how many the disease ravaged, how fleeting even the successes seemed to be, for the most part. The scientific material is presented in a clear and easily understood manner, and is well-balanced with the stories of the researchers, and of Mukherjee’s dealings with his own patients and their dealings with cancer.

Overall, actually, the writing is really quite well done; Mukherjee doesn’t let things get too heavy, because even when things go wrong, you still have this sense of fervent struggling to work problems out and make people better, to figure out more effective treatments for the future. This is a very solid piece of history, in that you really get a sense of the people and the decisions they made, both for good and bad. To have gotten as far as people did in effective treatments without knowing the underlying cause of cancer is remarkable, for example.

On the whole, this was a very interesting book, one well deserving of the praise it’s gotten, and one that isn’t nearly as scary as it might appear at first glance. You get a new sense of respect for the creativity and variety of science, just as much for the disease at the heart of the book. All that insight is definitely worth the read.
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LibraryThing member Jenners26
A REVIEW OF THE AUDIOBOOK VERSION

It is a testament to Mukherjee’s writing that I listened to 20 hours and 49 minutes of this audiobook with relatively little discomfort. Billed as “a biography of cancer,” this book is ambitious. Examining cancer from its earliest appearances in medical history to present day developments, Mukherjee takes his complex and wide-ranging subject and breaks it down into understandable pieces. He also manages to make it personal. Using the case history of one of his patients diagnosed with leukemia as a framing device for the book, Mukherjee never forgets that behind all the technological advances, clinical studies, fundraising efforts, legislation and research are real people fighting for their lives. By putting human stories front and center (just like the Jimmy Fund), Mukherjee makes what could have been a dry and incomprehensible book come alive with stories that each of us can relate to.

I was surprised how fascinating the history of cancer turned out to be. So many scientists, physicians, surgeons and researchers have struggled to understand and “cure” this elusive disease. Hearing about the various breakthroughs that led to our current understanding of cancer was almost like reading a suspense novel. Who would figure out the “cause” of cancer? When would they make a link between smoking and lung cancer? When would surgeons realize that radical mastectomies were not a cure for breast cancer? Aside from the medical issues surrounding cancer research, Mukherjee also spends a fair amount of time on the politics of cancer—from the fundraising and advocacy efforts of Mary Lasker to the radical advocacy of groups like ACT UP. One lesson repeated time and time again is that breakthroughs in cancer treatments often happen because of passionate and dedicated people who won’t take no for an answer.

One downside of reading/listening to this book is that you will come to feel that developing cancer of some form or another is an almost inevitable part of being human. If my understanding of this book is accurate, cancer is essentially a part of each and every one of us—built into our very genes and waiting only to be activated by a combination of triggers that may or may not happen in our lifetime. We can take every precaution we want (not smoking, exercising regularly, eating healthily) but might develop a type of cancer. The good news is that many types of cancer can be successfully treated (even vanquished). The bad news, however, is that a universal cure for cancer is a myth. Like people, cancer has numerous different forms and, in many ways, is adapting and evolving along with our understanding and treatment of it. As upsetting as this may sound, I still think it is best to understand the history and nature of cancer and be ready to fight if and when the time comes. And, with any luck, we’ll each have an oncologist as gifted and humane as Dr. Mukherjee heading up our treatment.

A Word About the Narration: The narrator, Simon Hoye, was certainly given a challenge in reading this book, and he did a pretty good job. However, I felt his voice was ill-suited for such a long listen. I needed a little more color and nuance and expression and often found myself longing for a different narrator.
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