The Emperor of All Maladies A Biography of Cancer By Siddhartha Mukherjee

The Emperor of All Maladies by Siddhartha Mukherjee

My friend, Linda Dunn, told me about this book with a bit of trepidation just as you would suggest a book about the very disease that almost took that person’s life.  I found the information about this horrible, daunting disease incredible and it gave me such an appreciation for all the scientists and doctors who do research and develop drugs to bring about a cure or at least to find a way to give a patient more time before cancer takes them.  I’m eternally grateful for the hours and hours people have spent doing research that might lead to a breakthrough, or might lead to a dead end.  I can’t even wrap my mind around the suffering that cancer victims- little children and adult had to endure as they experimented with surgeries, drugs and therapies in an effort to eradicate this disease.  I love that Mukjerjee writes about the successes because they are incredible and so touching.  As difficult as it was to think of these cells that invade our bodies from the inside, I feel like I learned so very much.  I actually am proud of myself for daring to read about this disease that also so confounds doctors and has the fear of humankind in its grip.

Here’s a partial review from the New York Times:

At the end of every evening he (Mukherjee) found himself stunned and speechless in the neon floodlights of the hospital parking lot, compulsively trying to reconstruct the day’s decisions and prescriptions, almost as consumed as his patients by the dreadful rounds ochemotherapy and the tongue-twisting names of the drugs, “Cyclophosphamide, cytarabine, prednisone, asparaginase. . . .”

Eventually he started this book so as not to drown.

The oldest surviving description of cancer is written on a papyrus from about 1600 B.C. The hieroglyphics record a probable case of breast cancer: “a bulging tumor . . . like touching a ball of wrappings.” Under “treatment,” the scribe concludes: “none.”

For more than 2,000 years afterward, there is virtually nothing about cancer in the medical literature (“or in any other literature,” Mukherjee adds.) The modern understanding of the disease originated with the recognition, in the first half of the 19th century, that all plants and animals are made of cells, and that all cells arise from other cells. The German researcher Rudolph Virchow put that in Latin: omnis cellula e cellula.

Cancer is a disease that begins when a single cell, among all the trillions in a human body, begins to grow out of control. Lymphomas, leukemias, malignant melanomas, sarcomas all begin with that microscopic accident, a mutation in one cell: omnis cellula e cellula e cellula. Cell growth is the secret of living, the source of our ability to build, adapt, repair ourselves; and cancer cells are rebels among our own cells that outrace the rest. “If we seek immortality,” Mukherjee writes, “then so, too, in a rather perverse sense, does the cancer cell.”


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