Fin: ‘The Emperor of All Maladies’

‘The Emperor of All Maladies’

by Siddhartha Mukherjee

  • Date finished: May 29, 2012
  • Genre: Health, Science
  • Year: 2010
  • Project: n/a
  • Reading List: Spring 2012
  • Quick thoughts upon finishing: Sometimes being a book person (and compulsive reader of book blogs) is a good thing. I had heard a lot of buzz about The Emperor of All Maladies since it came out a few years ago, and after seeing some of my favorite bloggers raving about it, I knew it would be an excellent candidate in my quest to read more quality non-fiction.
  • I want to first point out that before reading this book, I already had a strange fascination with cancer. I have no idea why, but I sometimes dwell on the unfounded fear that I’m going to “get cancer” someday, most notably breast cancer. I don’t have a family history of the disease, and I am only 25. I’m also not a hyperchondriac. But I have this “worry” nestled deep inside me, and I thought perhaps reading the “biography of cancer” would help alleviate those fears.
  • This book did, and it didn’t. Well, first let me say that was an EXCELLENT book. Well worth the Pulitzer it earned. It was well-researched, well-written and laid out the history of a very complicated disease in a lively way that made those 470 pages fly by. If I could read more books like this, I would. In a heartbeat.
  • But back to my problems. Mukherjee’s book was a little disconcerting. Coming up against the sheer weight of cancer can be difficult — from the overwhelming statistics to descriptions of what it does to your body. It is, to be honest, a little frightening. Plus, the majority of patients Mukherjee follows dies from the disease in some form or the other, whether it’s from the lack of a cure or a relapse four years after they thought they’ve finally beaten it.
  • But then, there are survivors and it’s heartening to know how far science and medicine has come, even in the last 20 years, in just understanding the disease. Plus, I think there’s something to be said for knowing thy enemy. While technically the most difficult chapters to read, Mukherjee’s account of the genetic root of cancer — where cancer comes from, so to speak — allayed my fears most of all. I’m not sure why; the lesson of those chapters is that mutations could happen to anyone, anytime. But I think understanding the beast helps make it less scary, less formidable. If I were to “get cancer” someday (and who knows, I could … as could Joel, my mother, father), I would feel more confident knowing that my enemy and I at least understand each other.
  • All in all, like I said, a wonderful book. The chapters describing the crusade to have cigarettes labeled as a carcinagen was particularly fascinating, but really, that’s what makes The Emperor of All Maladies so great. Even though he deals with tumors, oncogenes and smears of cells, Mukerjee makes this a human story above all. Human in that he really shines a spotlight on the patients and their struggles, but also human because no advances in the “war on cancer” could ever have been made without doctors, chemists, statiscians, researchers, politicians and crusaders. There’s a lot of hubris and human frailty in these pages, as well as tales of real heros — even if they’re just lab rats staring down a microscope.
  • And so, if you have the patience to wade through 470 pages of sometimes dense prose and a lot of medical references, read this book. I guess it’s not for everyone, but I think it should be.
  • Grade: A
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