How do you write a history of cancer? You humanize it. You demystify it.
Siddhartha Mukherjee, a researcher and cancer specialist, does both in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, “The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer,” which was also adapted as a PBS documentary by Ken Burns.
Mukherjee, an assistant professor of medicine at Columbia University and a staff physician at its medical center, finds time to get out of the lab. Since his book was published in late 2010, he continues to travel and speak about his work.
In mid-May, he spoke to a packed house at University of Southern Maine, an event orga- nized by the Maine Cancer Foundation and New England Cancer Specialists. He asked the audience – made up of doctors, nurses, social workers, patients, family members of those who have been lost to cancer, and others – to embrace the idea that only in community will the fight against cancer be won.
Demystifying cancer and presenting a roadmap for the new landscape of the disease is vital, he said.
“People think of cancer research as so complex, and it’s not true,” Mukherjee told the audience. “Don’t let anyone make you think it’s too complicated. If your loved one was a patient, you’d be able to have a real conversation.”
Mukherjee is devoted to caring for cancer patients, and as a researcher, he’s pushing the limits of discovering new cancer drugs using innovative biological methods. But the most striking aspect of his book and talk is this demystification, marked by his ability to transcend the jargon of the scientific and medical worlds to communicate the “story” and biology of cancer. The result is a human-relationship and community-based approach that runs counter to much of western medicine.
In weaving personal stories into the history of epic battles to control, cure and conquer cancer, Mukherjee lays the groundwork for embracing emerging trends while simultane- ously championing human connection.
“We used to think of prevention, detection and cure as separate categories,” he said. “But now, we’re trying to understand cancer from the ground up, to detect it early and to prevent it.”
Mukherjee says he’s clear that cancer now touches, in some way, the lives of every single person on earth. In the United States, 1 in 2 men and 1 in 3 women will get cancer in their lifetime; 1 in 4 will die from it. In Maine, with cancer rates the worst in New England, cancer is the leading cause of death.
“The Emperor of All Maladies” was named by Time magazine as one of the 100 most influential books of the last 100 years, and has won numerous other awards.
Mukherjee has appeared on The Moth, PopTech, TED and more–essentially a who’s who of cultural/artistic/scientific innovators and thinkers. His new book, “The Gene: An Intimate History,” was released in May.