The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer by Siddhartha Mukherjee

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Being a survivor of Ovarian Cancer, and having many family members both survive and succumb to cancer I was nervous to pick this book up because I didn’t know if it would send me into a darker place and really hit me hard.

This book was really, really well done. It truly was a “biography” of cancer. It went back to the roots of when we first discovered it, and tried to cure it. What happened back in the ancient times in Eqypt was intense. There were attempts to simply cut out breast cancer and it was usually a fatal attempt to save the patient.

It was frustrating beyond belief to learn about how cancer was treated between the 1880’s and 1960’s. Children who succumb to luekemia were shoved into dark corners of the hospital, or even the basement wards under the logic that “they can die in peace in a restful place with no doctors hounding them”. They were simply left to die.

The doctors that pioneered chemotherapy were treated like monsters. Because the treatment was so toxic they were viewed as cruel and ruthless people who were torturing their patients to their deaths. The truth was the doctors truly knew that they were onto something in the beginning stages of chemotherapy. They were relentless in their pursuit of a cure, and one of the doctors who discovered the early prototype of chemotherapy for luekemia and lymphoma was fired by a board of doctors who deemed he was too extreme in his methods.

Senior doctors wouldn’t touch the research – so it was left up to newly graduated med students to continue on with the research amongts the jeers and distrust of their fellow doctors – all the while knowing they may be ending their careers and sacrificing all of their time in the quest to find the cure for cancer.

The New York Times was asked to run a special on breast cancer, and their response was they could neither use the word breast, or CANCER in their articles because it was such a taboo subject. The survival rate before chemotherapy was less than 1%, and it was so feared by the general public that not even the news wanted to cover it. I just got so enraged reading about how people and doctors were treated in those times I put the book down several times.

The author of the book is an oncologist, so not only do we get a story about how the ancients attempted to treat cancer, and how people were treated at the turn of the century, we also get a modern view of what it’s like to be an oncologist, a speciality that takes an enormous amount of courage and heart to treat patients with such a grim outlook.

This is a book I recommend to anyone who has known somone who’s been diagnosed with cancer, or who has an interest in this topic. Hell, even if you don’t I still think you should read this book because of the dense amount of information that’s so important for people to understand.

It’s a story about how humanity has a drive to live, a drive to learn, and an innate need to help one another. The pioneers of chemotherapy were heros with undaunting courage to wade through the criticism and keep fighting knowing they were on the right track. Without them, this world may still have been suffering a 1% chance of survival without the miracles of chemotherapy, radiation and other methods of fighting the war on cancer.


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