History, hope combine in cancer biography

By Leslie Kohman, MD

maladiesDid you know that cancer has been described in Egyptian mummies?

Or that chemotherapy was developed to treat childhood leukemia, and its use in adult cancers is a much later development?

Or how the National Cancer Institute has had intermittent periods of congressional underfunding since its inception in 1937, very similar to what we are experiencing now?

Or that the American Cancer Society started with a volunteer “Women’s Field Army” that took to the streets in the 1930s to raise awareness and funds?

Or that until recently, cancer was a shameful secret that people did not discuss openly?

All these and many more fascinating anecdotes are described in the Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer, written by Siddhartha Mukherjee, MD, a young medical oncologist at one of the major teaching hospitals in Boston.

Since President Richard Nixon signed the National Cancer Act in 1971, which became known as the beginning of the “War on Cancer,” cancer treatments, investigations and publicity have steadily increased. Countless people have dedicated their lives to learning about cancer and how to treat it, to the great benefit of innumerable patients. Nonetheless, we have not won this war yet, and the science of cancer is so complex that it may not be possible.

Mukherjee skillfully combines history, biography and science with moving stories about patients, those who have survived cancer and those who have not. He has written a fascinating book at a level accessible to the general reader as well as those with a more medical or scientific bent. He describes human conflict, failure and triumph in masterly fashion.

He also describes his own personal development as a physician as he enters with his patients into the world of cancer.

I highly recommend this extraordinary story of history and hope to anyone who has been touched by cancer or is curious about it (that is all of us!) and I look forward with great anticipation to the upcoming Ken Burns film inspired by this book, to be shown on PBS March 30, 31 and April 1, 2015.

Ken.BurnsSAVE THE DATE: Get an early look at clips from the upcoming television event, “The Story of Cancer: The Emperor of All Maladies” from 6 to 8 p.m. Wednesday, March 25.

The Upstate Cancer Center, in partnership with the WCNY television station, presents the free preview event. Parking is also free in the open lot on East Adams Street across from the center.

Physicians and staff from the cancer center will make presentations during the event. Attendees will learn about their risk of cancer and the newest treatments available.

“The Story of Cancer” is a six-hour documentary based on “The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer.” The film was directed by filmmakers Barak Goodman and produced by Ken Burns, who recently oversaw production of “The Roosevelts.”


Leslie Kohman, MD, is the medical director of the Upstate Cancer Center. Hear an interview with her about the history of cancer. 

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