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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A biography?, 4 Oct 2011
This review is from: The Emperor of All Maladies (Hardcover)
A biography? The very idea of writing a `life' of an inanimate entity seems a little odd but, as with Ackroyd's `Biography of London' and others the concept makes a valid point. The human experience of interacting with a city, a building, or in this case a disease that appears to evolve over a period of time seems to endow the subject with a personality that can be explored. Cancer has seemed like a fugitive evading capture by medical science and like an enemy-within for millions of patients over centuries.
Siddhartha Mukherjee's comprehensive history of human involvement with cancer starts from this premise, that cancer is a single entity that can eventually be understood and defeated. Rather than present a linear history from the earliest known recorded cases (though he gives us those), he chooses to trace the individual histories of the different lines of attack. While undoubtedly scientific understanding of cancer has developed considerably, and there is a sense of hope as each foray pushes back a boundary, there is a sense that there have been missed opportunities when different areas of investigation could have cooperated to advantage, and that the ultimate message is that we have to understand that cancer is not a single entity with common cause or solution but myriads of manifestations of the same symptom of growth without control, and that there will probably never be a time when the `war' will be over.
That the author has a passion for his subject is evident, what is pleasing is that in writing in such an accessible manner it is clear that he has not fallen into the trap that so many scientists and clinicians do, of detatching their interest in the subject from the individuals who they are treating. Mukherjee evidently delights in the recovery of patients, and revels in the passion of the scientists in equal measure.
This is a meticulously researched, eminently readable work to recommended to anyone with any interest in cancer. Minor quibbles would be that the author himself refrains from entering into much criticism of individuals or business. It is apparent he knows much more can be done to remove carcinogens (tobacco in particular), and that some beneficial drugs are not being made widely available through purely economic considerations, but he stops short of an overt attack. There is also too little here about the role palliative care can play at the end of patient's lives.
Overall, however, this is an excellent summary of where we are with cancer and how we got here. While it seems unlikely that Dr Mukherjee will write on any other topic, it is to be hoped that he can produce later editions reporting further incursions against the enemy.
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