The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer written by Dr. Siddhartha Mukherjee and read by Simon Hoye
Publisher: Tantor Audio, 2010
Length: 20 hours and 49 minutes
Genre: Non-Fiction, History, Science
Where I Got It: Downloaded it from Audible.com
Why I Read It: I kept hearing how amazing this book was and, despite the subject matter, decided to take it on.
My Rating: 4 stars
It is a testament to Mukherjee’s writing that I listened to 20 hours and 49 minutes of this audiobook with relatively little discomfort. Billed as “a biography of cancer,” this book is ambitious. Examining cancer from its earliest appearances in medical history to present day developments, Mukherjee takes his complex and wide-ranging subject and breaks it down into understandable pieces. He also manages to make it personal. Using the case history of one of his patients diagnosed with leukemia as a framing device for the book, Mukherjee never forgets that behind all the technological advances, clinical studies, fundraising efforts, legislation and research are real people fighting for their lives. By putting human stories front and center (just like the Jimmy Fund), Mukherjee makes what could have been a dry and incomprehensible book come alive with stories that each of us can relate to.
I was surprised how fascinating the history of cancer turned out to be. So many scientists, physicians, surgeons and researchers have struggled to understand and “cure” this elusive disease. Hearing about the various breakthroughs that led to our current understanding of cancer was almost like reading a suspense novel. Who would figure out the “cause” of cancer? When would they make a link between smoking and lung cancer? When would surgeons realize that radical mastectomies were not a cure for breast cancer? Aside from the medical issues surrounding cancer research, Mukherjee also spends a fair amount of time on the politics of cancer—from the fundraising and advocacy efforts of Mary Lasker to the radical advocacy of groups like ACT UP. One lesson repeated time and time again is that breakthroughs in cancer treatments often happen because of passionate and dedicated people who won’t take no for an answer.
One downside of reading/listening to this book is that you will come to feel that developing cancer of some form or another is an almost inevitable part of being human. If my understanding of this book is accurate, cancer is essentially a part of each and every one of us—built into our very genes and waiting only to be activated by a combination of triggers that may or may not happen in our lifetime. We can take every precaution we want (not smoking, exercising regularly, eating healthily) but might develop a type of cancer. The good news is that many types of cancer can be successfully treated (even vanquished). The bad news, however, is that a universal cure for cancer is a myth. Like people, cancer has numerous different forms and, in many ways, is adapting and evolving along with our understanding and treatment of it. As upsetting as this may sound, I still think it is best to understand the history and nature of cancer and be ready to fight if and when the time comes. And, with any luck, we’ll each have an oncologist as gifted and humane as Dr. Mukherjee heading up our treatment.
A Word About the Narration: The narrator, Simon Hoye, was certainly given a challenge in reading this book, and he did a pretty good job. However, I felt his voice was ill-suited for such a long listen. I needed a little more color and nuance and expression and often found myself longing for a different narrator.
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