I have to find a cheerier book to read next.
Over spring break I decided to tackle The Emperor of All Maladies. A Biography of Cancer by Siddhartha Mukherjee. It’s a brilliant book. If you’re looking for a better understanding of the big picture of cancer, this is where to go.
I heard about this book awhile ago – it was, after all, the 2011 Pulitzer Prize winner for general nonfiction – but was not in a hurry to read it because, well, it is a fairly hefty-looking tome about cancer.
As a pathologist, I have a fair acquaintance with cancer – I know what it looks like. Pathologists look at resected organs and at specimens under the microscope, and one of the main questions we’re supposed to answer is: "Is it cancer?" So we have to know how to recognize it when we see it. I’m a pediatric pathologist, so we’re generally looking for a specific subset of tumors that occur in children. Over the years I’ve grown more accustomed to seeing the comparatively rare pediatric cancer variants rather than the much more common breast, colon, lung and prostate cancers that plague adults. However, as I’ve gotten older, those adult cancers have begun to swirl around me in a different way – they’ve begun to invade the circle of my friends.
In this extraordinarily readable book, Mukerherjee lays out the pathways that were explored, increasing incrementally the knowledge about specific malignancies. He explains how therapies added to understanding about cause and vice-versa. In the final chapters, we get to the unraveling of the genetic mechanisms of some cancers and the promise that molecular research holds for the eventual understanding of more and more types of cancer. Understanding the mechanism has led to some targeted therapies and will hopefully lead to more. The book is cautiously optimistic and I came away from it feeling like I had a better understanding of where cancer biology and treatment have been and where they are heading. Unfortunately, it’s also clear that there’s no escaping the suffering cancer has caused and will continue to cause.
If you’re curious about cancer, I highly recommend The Emperor of All Maladies - and the Pulitzer committee agrees.
Still, the next book I read has got to be fluffier.