In 2005 (?) my mom had cancer. She told us that she had to go in for surgery. I visited her in the hospital. She came home. My youngest brother and I called her surgery “the incision” and would make fun of her Pre Incision and Post Incision dancing. I wasn’t living at home and the whole thing seemed to pass rather quickly and then it was over. My mom was okay… then I read The Emperor of All Maladies… so I called to hear what really happened, because if Mukherjee taught me one thing, it is that cancer is never that simple.
My mom had been having stomach pains. Not normal pains, the kind that make life challenging. She went to the doctor who couldn’t find anything wrong. Eventually they decided to have an ultrasound. As my mom watched the ultrasound technician’s face, she knew. Now my mom is a bit dramatic, and a bit Chilean, but I don’t doubt that she did know. She slyly asked the tech if the cancer was very bad. Not realizing that my mother had not yet been diagnosed with cancer he said, “Yes, how soon are you going in for surgery?” My mom lied, “I’m seeing the oncologist today.” The tech said, “Good, schedule it soon.” What followed was my mother having an argument with the nurse and demanding to see the oncologist that day (I told you she was Chilean, right?). This was right before Christmas, and they scheduled her surgery for early January. They didn’t tell us until a few days before she went it for surgery because they didn’t want to make us nervous. They removed the cancerous tumor and, luckily it hadn’t spread to to any of the surrounding areas. She had various follow ups, but to this day, the cancer hasn’t returned… but here’s the thing, the stomach pains my mom was having had nothing to do with the cancer. They were unexplained. She never had them before and never had them since.
So why MY long biography about my mom’s cancer? Mukherjee makes it clear in his book that while cancer is a disease and has its own history it is more than a disease, and it is personal, and we all have a biography of cancer. Mukherjee began writing this non fiction book as a journal of his first year working at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Massachusetts. He tackles the history of the many diseases which fall under the umbrella that we call cancer, from early Egyptian records and the grim prognoses “Therapy: there is none.” to the the current trends of chemotherapy and research medicine. He takes us through the lives of various cancer patients, doctors, lobbyists, researchers, and those closest to them. He spends a great deal of time on Sidney Farber a pediatric oncologist and early proponent of chemotherapy as a form of treatment and Mary Lasker, a philanthropist and their efforts to bring cancer to the American people on a large scale. They wanted a war on Cancer from all fronts, federal funding, education, and if possible, prevention. Mukherjee discusses the complexities involved in tackling a disease that has been misunderstood and to this day, not completely ‘solvable’. Mukherjee masterfully weaves the technical with the personal to achieve a brilliant sort of teaching. I came away from this book understanding cancer, clearly not as well as an oncologist, but as well as anyone who is holding the hand of someone going through the struggles and battles that is modern day cancer.
Mukerjee’s book is honest, grim at times, ugly at others, but full of hope for the future. I highly recommend this book.