Friday, December 16, 2011

The Emperor of All Maladies

Siddhartha Mukherjee is one of those rare non-fiction authors who has taken a difficult subject, cancer, and made it a fleshed-out character in a biography.  Subtitled, coincidentally enough, A Biography of Cancer, Emperor follows the history of cancer and people's devotion to finding its cure over 5,000 years.  It was named a Top Ten Book of 2010 by the Times, and he spoke incredibly eloquently at the National Book Festival this year; I'm so glad I picked it up.
Mukherjee traces cancer back to an Egyptian queen who, upon discovering a lump in her breast, demands her Greek servant to cut it out.  A thoroughly brief footnote, nothing further of this queen is mentioned in any records.  However, the author takes the reader through a history of cancer's path beginning at its first note, all the way to current treatments being used in oncology wards.  Ancient physicians gave cancer its name because it looked like a crab, with its legs spread out around a round protrusion.  Cancer has since become a force to be reckoned with, as it affects over 7 million people in the world and will continue to do so as our population ages (cancer was relatively rare when our average life span was only about 40 years old; as we age, our cells are more likely to "lose their way," as it were).  Although I am no physician, Mukherjee uses layman's vocabulary to get his point acorss, making the book lucid and easy to follow. 
Most of the action happens during the 20th century, with Sidney Farber, the first man to successfully use chemotherapy to treat childhood leukemia and a driving force behind many radical ideas for cancer research, and Mary Lasker, a philanthropist who badgered Congress into giving cancer research more money.  Scattered throughout are stories of Mukherjee's own patients, giving the reader a wonderful blend of perspectives: the oncologist, the researcher, the fundraiser, the patient, the historian. 
At over 470 pages, reading this is certainly a large undertaking; I highly recommend you give it a shot, though.  Even those who are more into fiction than tomes of nonfiction will be pleasantly surprised by its accessibility.

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