Breast Cancer Awareness Month Recommended Reading, Part III: “The Emperor of All Maladies”

LBBC’s writer and web content coordinator Josh Fernandez concludes our three-part book review series for Breast Cancer Awareness Month (BCAM) with a write-up on “The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer.” The Pulitzer Prize-winning book was written by Dr. Siddartha Mukherjee, who spoke at our 2013 Annual Fall Conference: News You Can Use. 

The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer (Written by Siddartha Mukherjee, MD, PhD, published by Scribner, 2010)

After having to read Edward Jenner’s “Vaccination Against Smallpox” during my sophomore year of college, I thought I would never again pick up, let alone enjoy, another nonfiction science book. Despite the importance of that text, and my nerdy ways — I enjoy reading sociological and nutrition science text books, balancing chemical equations for fun and I recite “Battlestar Galactica” and “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” episodes by heart —nonfiction science books had been ruined for me.

Nearly 6 years later, I picked up a copy of Dr. Siddartha Mukherjee’s Pulitizer Prize-winning book, “The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer.” About 40 pages in, I was captivated by Dr. Mukherjee’s prose and storytelling. This renewed my appreciation for nonfiction science narratives.

As its subtitle states, “The Emperor of All Maladies” is a historical account of cancer and how people throughout history have described and been treated for it. Dr. Mukherjee traces cancer’s past, from the first time it was identified in Egypt around 1600 B.C., to the development of surgical treatment for the disease — especially breast cancer — between 1850 to 1950, to present-day research and treatment updates on cancer.

Dr. Mukherjee balances each section of the book with insight into medical professionals of each time period and their experience studying and treating cancer, along with his own stories and anecdotes treating cancer. Although his experiences do not distract from the overall structure of each section, there are parts of the book where Dr. Mukherjee’s experiences with those affected by cancer outshine the fascinating medical history. In one example, he writes, “In 2005, a man diagnosed with multiple myeloma asked me if he would be alive to watch his daughter graduate from high school in a few months. In 2009, bound to a wheelchair, he watched his daughter graduate from college. The wheelchair had nothing to do with his cancer. The man had fallen down while coaching his youngest son’s baseball team.”

Though it is called a “biography of cancer,” “The Emperor of All Maladies” is not just the story of cancer. One of the messages of the book is that of survival . This theme resonated with me as I read Dr. Mukherjee’s section about Barbara Bradfield, a woman who was diagnosed with HER2-positive metastatic breast cancer in 1991. Barbara was the first woman to receive trastuzumab (Herceptin), and her response to this anti-HER2 therapy led her to be not only disease free, but an inspirational story of this targeted treatment.

A general session speaker at our Fall Conference last weekend, Dr. Mukherjee’s reflection on cancer’s history adds even more meaning to the lives of those living with the disease, and those who have passed from it. Dr. Mukherjee echoes this sentiment when he writes, “But the story of leukemia — the story of cancer — isn’t the story of doctors who struggle and survive, moving from an embankment of illness to another. Resilience, inventiveness, and survivorship —qualities often ascribed to great physicians — are reflected qualities, emanating first from those who struggle with illness and only then mirrored by those who treat them. If history of medicine is told through the stories of doctors, it is because their contributions stand in place of the more substantive heroism of their patients.”

Whether you are a healthcare provider, caregiver or someone living with the disease, “Emperor of Maladies” has much to offer you. Even if you are privy to the facts mentioned in this book, you at least walk away having read a myriad of great stories by a premier expert on cancer.

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