Komorebi Post– In his first book, Siddhartha Mukherjee framed cancer as a biography to try and understand the mentality and charachector of this illness. The New York times described it as “an epic story that he seems compelled to tell, the way a passionate young priest might attempt a biography of Satan”. The book published in 2010, is a winner of the Pulitzer Prize, and now a documentary from Ken Burns on PBS.
It is one of the most interesting and insightful books that I have read in the last year. Mukherjee who is Physician, researcher, and award-winning science writer explored with significant details what the world will look like in 2100, he describes how advanced our technology will be. The writer was very optimistic with what we will be able to get done as a human race, except for Cancer- as he doubts the human’s capability of overcoming it.
The story of mankind’s search to understand cancer is a recent story even though there are cases of cancer far back in history. It took continuous understanding of medicine and a vastly increased life expectancy to find current treatments. We sent people to the moon and accomplished astounding things as a human race. But Cancer is the next mountain to climb and political pressure got tougher and stronger. People wrote letters to Richard Nixon, telling him that if he didn’t act, millions would die, and their deaths would be on his hands. Cancer is different than other diseases. It’s not a matter of finding the right vaccine to kills cancer, because it’s in the nature of cancer to appear as a normal cell. Cancer isn’t a single entity, either, because there are many kinds of cancers. Also, cancer is universal and intrinsically connected to our biology. If you live long enough, you will most likely get cancer. Even today, the only known way to deal with cancer is to cut it out or kill it with radiation, destroying the good with the bad. This is the mountain that many doctors spent their lives trying to cure through the 20th century, often with heartbreaking results. Multiple times, they thought they had a cure, only to watch their patients regress and then die.
This is the hard way of scientific advancement; problems not only get harder, but also the nature of problems to solve changes. Newtonian physics were accepted and well established. Then came relativity, quantum mechanics, and string theory. Cancer is the medical equivalent of string theory, in physics and like the scientists studying string theory, there are professionals all over the world dedicating their lives to solving the puzzle.
This book continually highlighted the point that cancer is like us, in fighting for survival in whatever way it can. We live only through the growth of our cells and this is exactly what cancer uses against us. I must give the author credit for the perfect final note on the book- which was dazzling. He told the story of a woman who battled for years against her cancer. It made her horribly sick, she lost her hair, and at times she couldn’t move. All the while, she responded with positivity and perseverance, painting her room in bright colors and keeping her sense of humor. The author sees this woman as the perfect encapsulation of mankind’s 4000+ year battle with cancer. Even though she died at the end.