Ok, so a book all about cancer may not sound like ideal bedtime reading, but The Emperor of All Maladies, by Siddhartha Mukherjee is brilliant stuff. Billed as the ‘autobiography’ of cancer, it’s an historical epic that, whilst going into a lot of detail, explains clearly to a lay-reader exactly why cancer is such a tough disease for science to crack. Following scientists chasing the illness through the centuries, it’s a constant game of cat-and-mouse, a whodunnit thriller, as they try to work out what cancer actually is, how it behaves and how it can be treated. From the horrors of seventeenth century surgery, to the uncovering of the link between smoking and lung cancer, to the discovery of drugs like Tamoxifen and Herceptin, it’s truly fascinating.
Although the book inevitably has some heartbreaking stories of loss, it’s not depressing. Cancer is a disease that touches all of us at some point or another and, as such, brings a lot of fear with it, not only of the illness itself but of the often difficult treatments. There’s something reassuring about confronting the monster under the bed and understanding a little more about it.
The book quotes a lot of literature and memoir, as well as science, and his work as an oncologist has given Mukherjee a unique view of the humanity in human biology. I’m now intrigued to read Susan Sontag’s Illness As Metaphor.
Whilst not exactly light reading, it’s very well executed and I can see why it won the Pulitzer Prize last year. Mukherjee ends on a realistic, cautiously optimistic note. The hope is that, in time, cancer will become a chronic disease, rather than a fatal one.