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Book Review: The Emperor of all Maladies by Siddhartha Mukherjee

With some time to relax at the end of December, I opted to catch up on my reading a bit. From the moment I found out about Siddhartha Mukherjee’s “biography of cancer” I knew I had to take a look. While Mukherjee spices up his chronicle with harrowing glimpses into his own practice as a clinical oncologist, he generally offers a very clear and sober view of cancer and the various triumphs and pitfalls that have come along the way.

Mukherjee tracks through ancient accounts of the disease, from ancient papyrus scrolls, to Galen and his “black bile” hypothesis, to early epidemiological studies on carcinogens, to the adolescence of surgery and radiation therapy in the 20th century. He eventually wraps it up with a very brief overview of molecular genetics in cancer. Though I feel that he is short on discussing future directions in cancer therapy, it is in the traditional fashion of biographies that he does not predict the future of his subject.

“Nothing invented, nothing extraneous. Cancer’s life is a recapitulation of the body’s life, its existence a pathological mirror of our own. Susan Sontag warned against overburdening an illness with metaphors. But this is not a metaphor. Down to their innate molecular cores, cancer cells are hyperactive, survival-endowed, scrappy, fecund, inventive copies of ourselves.” -S Mukherjee

There is no sugar coating and nothing inserted; there is no uplifting message or thesis. If anything, one unfamiliar with cancer can appreciate how difficult it is to treat, and those more versed in the disease can appreciate how far we have come in our understanding. It’s a must-read for anyone that has any inkling to improve the human condition.


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