The Emperor of All Maladies

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.

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4 Responses to The Emperor of All Maladies

  1. Peg says:

    The recommendation of this book could not have come at a more appropriate time. Today, I finished my 11th radiation treatment for a cancer that is behind my right clavicle. This is my second bout with this disease. Sixteen years ago, I was diagnosed with a rare breast cancer and I have been cancer free until about three months ago. Now I have another rare cancer (not at all associated with the breast cancer). The main disruption of this bout is that the nerve pain from the pressure of the tumour has affected my way of knitting. I have used the throwing method for about 60 years, and now I will become a continental knitter. It is still painful to throw, but no pain with continental. I want and need to knit, so I am changing. Easier than one would think, especially when the desire is there to knit. My prognosis is very positive, even though I need, after radiation and a four to six week rest, to undergo surgery and then some chemo.

    Life is indeed very precious, and cancer is, indeed, a very puzzling disease. So many cancers are now cured that 20 years ago would have been fatal. I will get my hands on this book very soon.

    I await your next podcast. I often listen to podcasts at night and it saves me from going to places that are of no help.

    Glad to hear that you enjoyed your holiday. I also will have a serious look at the new shawl.


    • Hoxton says:

      Hello Peg, Thanks for your message. I’m so sorry to hear about your illness and how dare it affect your knitting! But then you’ve highlighted one of knitting’s (and indeed knitters’) greatest qualities: the ability to adapt and reinvent. I don’t think I’ve ever seen two people knit exactly the same way. I hope the rest of your treatment goes well and yes, it’s amazing the progress that has been made in recent decades. Take care and the Sheep sends a (medicinal) gin & tonic 😉

  2. Hi Hoxton,
    I recently found your podcast and LOVE it! Sadly I am American, but love all things British. I live in Denver Colorado, and it is beautiful, but I long for the lush green English country side, speckled with wooly British sheep. I love British novels, and I designed my whole back yard after English gardens.
    Thanks for all the great knitting and fun topics like Guy Fawkes. (I knew a little about him from reading my boys the Secret Seven Series)

    Ravelry: Scanzaroli
    blog: citygardenbliss

    • Hoxton says:

      Hi Diane,
      Thanks so much, I’m really glad you’re enjoying the show. Colorado does look beautiful – all that space! The mountains! – but I admit to a soft spot for a rolling English hill with some woolly sheep too.

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