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3.6 out of 5 stars
The Cancer Chronicles: Unlocking Medicine's Deepest Mystery
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on 20 October 2013
I had high hopes for this book. It got some good reviews in the heavier weeklies, and the subject deserves a new, wide ranging treatment. All we get in the media are pharma press releases and their attendant post code lottery stories. Nice, I thought, to get an overview.

And the book does give some very deep insights about origins:

Cancer isn't a disease - it's natural, and a condition which all multicellular organisms can experience, way back to the dinosaurs. "The price of evolution"
It results from a combination of cell mutation and cell division; there are a lot of similarities to the way bacteria behave when they're faced with a stress agent like an antibiotic.

Apart from the chemicals in tobacco or marijuana smoke, there is very little evidence to support the assertion that chemicals in food or the environment cause cancer: one exception is alcohol and cancers of the mouth or throat. Similarly there isn't a good link between radiation and cancer, except for very high doses which have a local effect. All these things may cause increased mutation, but mutation on its own doesn't lead to cancer.

A cancerous growth has a very difficult time establishing itself in a body: it benefits if we encourage it.

Cancer can be encouraged by factors which enhance cell growth: hormones especially oestrogen; insulin (which is why obesity and diabetes lead to higher incidences.

The statistics suggest that the incidence of cancer is not increasing unusually. We just don't die of other causes.

There's other good stuff, too. I really enjoyed the description of large science conferences: the poster sessions resemble the souks of Marrakesh, long interwoven corridors of goodies, and students waitng to pounce to tell you about them. The plenary sessions are like the square in the evening, evryone crowds round to hear the story tellers. And the annotations are comprehensive.

But I found the book unstructured and therefore hard going, and I'm a professional scientist. It jumps about and lacks an overall routemap. It could do with better signposts.

And I suspect that it will disappoint many readers, who might be looking for guidance on treatment, or a sharing of experience about the emotions of having the condition. This is a brave attempt to grasp the whole of the subject. Unfortunately the author isn't up to it.

Possibly someone should ask Steve Jones to have a go at it.
8 people found this helpful
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on 7 September 2016
This is a good book and the author gives a clear picture of the complicated nature of cancers and the difficulty of finding solutions. Nevertheless progress is being made on many fronts and that was encouraging to read. It is well written for an intelligent lay reader.
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on 6 October 2016
I wanted a different view on cancer. Not sci-fi but something in between science and the universe. This book is so well written and so inspiring on what cancer may be, could be and is.
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on 30 August 2014
I found this an awful mishmash with far too much emotional baggage which got in the way of the science.
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on 18 October 2013
I started reading this book with much enthusiasm as part of it has been serialised in the Daily Mail which I enjoyed reading.
Unfortunately this was the only part that I enjoyed as the rest of the book was difficult to read and unclear!
The style also didn't suit me.
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on 15 August 2014
From prehistoric times to current developments, Johnson surveys the phenomenon of cancer, all along blending personal anecdote with cutting-edge research. The popular science writer started his journey into cancer when his wife, Nancy, was diagnosed with a rare uterine variety. He took it as an opportunity not just for personal soul-searching (why her? why now?), but also for a wide-ranging odyssey into research about what causes cancer and how long it has been with us.

Johnson successfully balances (auto)biographical information and hard science, though some may struggle with the level of detail about cell biology and medical trials. Nancy's story reveals the harsh reality of cancer treatment – especially in America, where bureaucracy and astronomical medical bills exacerbate an already horrible experience. 'How quickly the unthinkable becomes routine,' Johnson reflects. The book ends on a sad note – though not with Nancy's death, one hastens to add. If only Johnson could have chosen to find more hope; instead he concludes, "With our tools and intelligence, we can strike small victories and hold off death for a while. But it is the tide that will eventually prevail." Ultimately, Siddhartha Mukherjee's Pulitzer Prize-winning The Emperor of All Maladies is the more comprehensive and optimistic study of cancer, but Johnson's is shorter and highly readable.

We have reached a point where no one is unaffected by cancer, directly or indirectly. That is to say, there is no one to whom this book will not be relevant. Some might be put off by both the weighty scientific subject and the pessimistic tone. However, I encourage reluctant readers to give it a try. You will learn more than you might expect, and explode many myths along the way.

(My full review is available at The Bookbag: http://www.thebookbag.co.uk/reviews/index.php?title=The_Cancer_Chronicles:_Unlocking_Medicine%27s_Deepest_Mystery_by_George_Johnson)
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