The Emperor of Maladies – Siddhartha Mukherjee

A tough book to read at the moment, but one I’m trying to get through along with Illness as Metaphor by Susan Sontag. This ‘biography of cancer’ gives not only a chronological account of the development of our understanding of the disease, but also a very humane portrait of what it means to be in the position of the author, because Siddhartha Mukherjee is a practising oncologist. His historical sweep goes back to not only the Egyptians and the roots of  understanding though the Greeks (or the Persian queen in 500BC who performed the first recorded masectomy as recorded by Herodotus), but also onwards through the middle ages, early surgical practises, chemotherapy and then the modern ‘war on cancer’. It’s especially good on the history of this ‘war’, a campaign waged very effectively by the American socialite Mary Lasker and the early chemotherapy pioneer Sidney Farber, from the 1940s onwards (good You Tube clip from Mukherjee about this ).

But Mukherjee also de-bunks the whole notion of any such ‘war’, where things can be framed as victories, indeed maybe his central point is a question mark over our concept of ‘progress’ at all. But he makes his point in particular by examining one of the central metaphors used in the 20th century, as Sontag also observed, one which Nixon was especially fond of (another one being the ‘war on drugs’). He’s also very good at exposing how commercial interests and big business can corrupt or distort any concept of public good, as in the case of big tobacco, advertising etc  The latter chapters give a real insight into how our understanding is changing rapidly because of the onset of gene therapies, and in some sense provides hope for us in our present position. However, perhaps one of his main points comes though with the rejection of cancer as any kind of metaphor, that it is quite literally a copy of ourselves and that we can no more rid ourselves of it than stop being born, ageing, healing and reproducing.

I found this a comforting, though, in the circumstances; didn’t read this to be told that everything is bright and we can all look forward to a cancer-free future. As I said, a very humane book which ends up feeling like meditation that defies categorisation as ‘history’ or ‘biography’ and is just a very good read about the subject which touches most people’s lives at some point.

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