Review: The Emperor of All Maladies

Well, I finally finished it.


I figured I would take a while to get through The Emperor of All Maladies. I didn’t count on it taking a year, but what can you do? šŸ˜‰

But please, don’t let this tardy recap deter you from diving in. I would have swallowed this book whole, had I the mental energy. If you have any interest whatsoever in oncology (or even if you don’t), do yourself a favor and buy this book. It reads like a novel, tracing the history of cancer, from thousands of years B.C. to present day. It explores not only the medical and scientific breakthroughs that made cancer treatment what it is today, but it also reviews the social and political forces that shaped the “war on cancer” as we know it. It truly did feel as if I was reading a complex and captivating biography. This story will remain on my bookshelves, among the oncology textbooks, as a reminder of the impact cancer has had on us all.

Most importantly, it made cancer accessible. For an incredibly complex disease, it can be equally complex to describe what you mean when you say someone “has cancer”. Siddhartha MukherjeeĀ helped me find ways to better explain the disease process and treatment options to my own patients. I found myself constantly gasping with wonder as Mukherjee unpacked and unraveled topics that I thought I understood already, but with this book gained a whole new level of comprehension. My family can attest that I would repeatedly place the book down in front of me, announce that I had just figured out “Why XYZ” and attempt to share my fascination. I didn’t always succeed because I’m not nearly as eloquent as the author. But theĀ Eureka!Ā moments arrived frequently, and I relished every one.

One of the most poignant sections of the book were its final pages, when Mukherjee attempted to reframe how he thought the war on cancer could successfully be waged. I remember being 11 years old and believing that I would find a cure for cancer someday. Once I became an oncology nurse, I realized just how impossible that seemed. But this book gave me hope again. Rather than boldly proclaim that the cure for cancer was right around the corner, Mukherjee acknowledged that the complexity and inherent “us-ness” of cancer may make itĀ an impossible disease to cure. It may just be a genetic end-point that we cannot escape as a human race. But the scientific breakthroughs that have come about have helped transformed many cancers from death sentences to chronic illnesses. It has given us months and years to reclaim and treasure.

We are mortal beings. But we are mortal beings with an incredible capacity for knowledge and thirst for discovery. Perhaps that is why cancer has fascinated me so much, all these years. I have attained just enough knowledge to realize how little I actually know.

What a gift that is.

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