Lessons from the ‘Emperor’

Unfortunately, cancer is a topic discussed in households across the world mainly because in one way or another it has had some impact on us personally or by association. And sadly those conversations may only become more frequent as the years go on. In 2015, one in four people will be diagnosed with cancer in their lifetime; the predicted extrapolation over time is that this number will increase and for most it will not be a question of ‘if’ they are diagnosed with cancer, it will be ‘when’. This concept is absolutely terrifying to me. That so many will have to face this all consuming life altering disease. Mukherjee, author of The Emperor of All Maladies, quoted poet Jason Shinder who so adequately wrote “Cancer is a tremendous opportunity to have your face pressed right up against the glass of your mortality”. Mukherjee then added “what patients see through the glass is not a world outside cancer, but a world taken over by it – cancer reflected endlessly around them like a hall of mirrors” (p. 398). I like to think that my cancer is not the crux of my life, but it many ways it is. I am in some way reminded everyday that I have cancer and will be reminded everyday for the rest of my life that I had cancer. There is no escaping that reality. That does not mean that a life during cancer or after is not possible, it just means adapting to a “new normal” as one of Mukherjee’s patients so explained it to him. And I completely agree, there is no returning to the life you knew before those words “you have cancer” were uttered to you. And that ‘new normal’ may be a complete shift, one that became necessary once cancer hijacked your body.

As a lover of history, Mukherjee’s writing style immediately peaked my interest and made me an instant fan of his and his work. I have been given tons of literature about cancer over the past year and have sought out even more for my own reading ‘pleasure’. This has been the only book so far that has offered a comprehensive picture of cancer that helped me understand my illness, the research, the treatments, the progress, the work, the patients, the oncologists, and societal implications in one fell swoop. I highly recommend reading it or taking in the documentary which airs tonight in a three part series on PBS thanks to the documentary vision of Ken Burns. I can’t wait to see it, although I know I have to order the dvd because as Josh so sweetly pointed out that there is no possible chance I will be able to stay awake until eleven o’clock one night let alone three. And sadly I have to admit that in this instance he is right. But I am fascinated by this endeavor that shows cancer as an evolving entity and as its biographer so pointed out an entity that has surely been in existence since 440 BC at the very least. And yet cancer evades us, primarily because it is the smartest version of ourselves. The cancer cell has perfected its propensity to mutate and replicate and sadly those cancer cells can sometimes evade even the harshest of treatments when our normal cells cannot withstand it. Thus “to keep pace with this malady, you need to keep inventing and reinventing, learning and unlearning strategies” (p.470). Mukherjee chronicles the pioneers of the field who worked tirelessly to make progress against this vile disease at the expense of patients at times only to be ridiculed and chastised by the medical community, but without them the world would know so little about this disease and have even fewer approaches to tackle it. There will never be a one size fits all cure for cancer because no cancer is the same and no individuals cancer cells behave the same. This heterogenous illness makes it impossible for a singular cure, but there are methodologies and treatments that can in fact cure some and have for decades even. The Emperor sheds light on the work and what was done in order to accomplish it from the tireless work of medical geniuses, to the fundraising endeavors that gave us the likes of the Jimmy Fund (which should really be named The Einar Gustafason Fund after the real Jimmy), and research still being done to help prevent the disease in the future. If cancer is part of your lexicon like it is for so many, this book puts it all in perspective and hopefully the PBS airing of the Burns documentary based on it will help many who have been impacted understand it a little better.


5 thoughts on “Lessons from the ‘Emperor’”

  1. I read this book when it was first published. It is an amazing book – historical, technical, filled with amazing information, yet reads like a novel. I highly recommend it. I read it shortly after my mother died of lung cancer so there were parts that made me cry but there were also parts that made me laugh. Thank you for reminding me of it.

    Liked by 1 person

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