Thursday, Dec. 09, 2010

The Emperor of All Maladies by Siddhartha Mukherjee

In a year jammed with celebrity memoirs, this biography may be the most interesting life story of them all. Siddhartha Mukherjee, an oncologist and cancer researcher, has taken that most dread-inducing of human diseases and distilled its history into a riveting tale of medical breakthroughs and failures, politics and personalities, life and death. After starting with some brief mentions of cancer in antiquity, Mukherjee takes us to the mid-1800s with a visceral account of the early, bloody attempts at combatting cancer, in which surgeons "returned to the operating table and cut and cut again ... as cancer was slowly excavated out of the human body piece by piece." Later came X-ray and radiation therapy, the potent chemical-based attacks of chemotherapy and present-day targeted drug therapy. On parallel tracks are the tales of Mary Lasker and Sidney Farber — mid–20th century advocates who organized and politicized the fight against cancer — and several of Mukherjee's own patients. It's a heady juggling act. And like any great biographer, Mukherjee approaches his subject with both dispassionate analysis and unrestrained fascination, writing of cancer, "It lives desperately, inventively, fiercely, territorially, cannily, and defensively ... To confront cancer is to encounter a parallel species, one perhaps more adapted to survival than even we are."