Every once in a while, I get lucky (no, not THAT kind of lucky….well, okay, that kind of lucky too :). I pick up a book that I’ve been putting off reading for ages, and become so completely captivated by it that by the end of it I am mentally beating myself for waiting so long to read it, and am also left wondering how anything I read after it will even stand a chance at being interesting. Siddhartha Mukherjee’s The Emperor of All Maladies, a wonderful book about the history of cancer throughout the ages, is that book.
Dr Mukherjee, a cancer physician and researcher, takes us on a whirlwind journey through the history of cancer, beginning with its first known description in the literature in ancient Egypt, all the way to the most cutting edge therapies currently being developed to fight cancer. It was amazing to see how far we have come in our knowledge about cancer cells and how to best combat them. Decades of research on cancer found that the cells that can cause cancer are in each and every one of us, located on genes in our DNA, which is one reason cancers can be seen in families, needing only a random mutation in a chromosome or an external agent like tobacco smoke, radiation or asbestos, to activate those dormant genes and begin the uncontrolled cell division that is cancer. It was amazing to see how even small discoveries that researchers spent their entire careers on helped to generate bigger and more important discoveries later on. It was like seeing pieces of a puzzle fall into place.
I was also fascinated by the newest drugs used to fight cancer, known as targeted therapies. In the olden days, cytotoxic (cell killing) chemotherapies were used to fight off cancer. The problem was that these drugs not only killed the cancer cells, but sometimes killed other cells too, and had yucky side effects. Some of these cytotoxic chemotherapies could also cause different kinds of cancers later on. Many of these older chemotherapies could not get into specific parts of the body where cancer cells would hide, so relapses would inevitably occur, and the cancer would come back worse than ever, AND resistant to the previous chemotherapy. Once researchers determined the shapes and chemical compositions of specific cancer cells, they could develop new drugs specifically made to bond with and kill the cancer cells only, leaving other healthy cells alone and with fewer side effects.
We are in a race against the clock with cancer research. Many of us know friends and loved ones affected by or taken by cancer. Every day brings new discoveries and new hope that a cure can be found in the future. I honestly had no idea how much progress we’ve made in fighting cancer before I read Dr Mukherjee’s book, and once I finished it, I was humbled and grateful to those who have spent their lives working so hard to find treatments. I was amazed and astonished at how hard some of these drug developers had to fight to get their products approved, and how lucky we are that they were approved, since they have saved so many lives. It gave me new understanding and empathy for those who are survivors and victims to cancer. This book is so important on so many levels, but most of all, to show that progress is being made and there is hope for the future.
You don’t have to be a doctor or a science major to read and enjoy this book. Mukherjee does a great job of explaining the research in a way that anyone can understand, and it is more compelling and fascinating than the most suspenseful mystery novel. Read this book. Don’t wait like I did.