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A Documentary for Us

Posted 1/6/2015

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  I am not a television watcher (indeed I can barely operate the fancy system that we have), but this is one documentary that will motivate me to figure it out. Hopefully, you have read The Emperor of all Maladies by Dr. Siddhartha Mukherjee. Published in 2010, it was a sensation and read and honored widely. I frequently recommend it to my patients who are angry and baffled why there has not been more progress in cancer research and care. From the position of: "There has been so much money spent, and still no cure..?" to "There must be a conspiracy by the drug companies to keep making money", there is lots of misunderstanding about cancer research. The bottom line is that it is an impossibly difficult problem.

  Dr. Mukharjee's book reads like a well-written detective novel. Even if you were uninterested in cancer (and since you are reading this blog, it is a pretty safe guess that you are quite interested), you would be fascinated by his story. Now it seems that Ken Burns was equally enthusiastic and approached him about making a documentary. It will be shown this spring, and I suspect we will all be glued to it. In the interim, please read the book.

Telling Cancer's Story
A Pulitzer Prize-winning book about cancer becomes a documentary after noted filmmaker Ken Burns signs on.

Documentary filmmaker Ken Burns, left, and Siddhartha Mukherjee, author of The Emperor of All
Maladies: A Biography of Cancer, share a light moment in Mukherjee’s laboratory in the Irving Cancer
Research Center at Columbia University Medical Center in New York City. | Photo by Michael Weschler
When Siddhartha Mukherjee was an oncology fellow at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and
Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, he was sometimes unable to answer questions that patients
asked about the origins of cancer, how treatments had evolved, and progress in developing new
therapies. He looked for a book to guide him, but he couldn’t find one. “I was astonished by this,” says
Mukherjee, who is now an assistant professor of medicine at Columbia University in New York City.
“Here we were, 4,000 years in one of the most complex, long-standing human projects in history, and
we didn’t have a roadmap to where we had come from, where we were going, why we were here, and
what was happening next.” Mukherjee decided to write a book to answer these important questions and
devoted several years to the project.
The book, The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer, was published in 2010. It describes the
history of cancer by focusing on pioneers who developed surgical procedures and experimented with
chemotherapy, as well as scientists who revealed the mechanisms underlying the unchecked growth of
cancer cells. Woven through the narrative are stories of activists who raised public awareness of cancer
and patients who benefited from treatment advances. In 2011, Mukherjee’s book won the Pulitzer Prize for
general nonfiction.

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