Friday, April 29, 2011

The Emperor of all Maladies: a biography of cancer

I chose this to read this book because unfortunately in the last few years cancer seems to have touched a lot of people I know, either directly or indirectly.

I thought it was time to actually find out more about it in a sustained manner.

Siddhartha Mukherjee’s The Emperor of all Maladies: A Biography of Cancer is an impressive book that systematically charts how cancer has been defined and treated.

He starts with the oldest surviving description of cancer is written on a papyrus from about 1600 B.C. and follows through to the development of chemotherapy treatments and stem cell research.

What makes this book a compelling, and also distressing read, is his narration of medical breakthroughs and disasters. The increasing radicalisation of surgeons who thought they could cure cancer by cutting more and more from the body is truly horrifying.

Mukherjee also intersperses his own clinical experiences and writes with a moving honesty about his own struggles with maintaining a sense of optimism in the face of this disease.

Overall, what will stay with me is the mercurial nature of cancer: it seems to have no logic or rationale. When it comes to cancer and also autoimmune diseases, we just don't know why our own bodies decide to turn against us.

For a dedicated arts/humanities geek, the science is pretty accessible in the book. Although the last few chapters, which go into the depth about DNA and RNA, did go a little bit over my head.

This is the book to read if you are interested in understanding more about cancer.