Monday, September 19, 2011
Review | The Emperor of all Maladies
I finished reading The Emperor of all Maladies by Siddhartha Mukherjee about a week ago, but like all good books, this one has been kept within easy reach for re-picking, reference and rumination. It won the Pulitzer Prize for Non-Fiction 2011, but I didn’t get around to reading it for quite a while, simply because I thought it might be a tad disturbing and full of gory case studies of mankind’s greatest killer – Cancer.
Nothing could be further from the truth. While the book’s subject matter is grim, with the incidence of cancer growing decade by decade, the treatment of the subject by Siddhartha is done in a manner that is thought provoking instead of terrifying. Through his eyes we discover the history of cancer, the many efforts to treat it, and how technology has played a great role in combating this disease.
However, he is quick to underscore the fact that cancer by its very nature is stitched into our genome. A cancer cell is one where its genes have spiralled out of control, and all the switches relating to growth have been jammed on permanently. We can rid ourselves of cancer then, only by limiting the processes in our bodies that depend on growth and regeneration - an impossible task.
He deals with the fact that while we understand much more about the nature and functioning of our cells, and while specific cures have been engineered to fix some of those broken “switches”, the end of cancer is not in sight. This is because cancer itself is evolving. Like a smarter version of us, it finds a way to thwart the cures and keep surviving in the body.
One section describes the greatest cause of cancer (you guessed it) – smoking. Tobacco is a potent carcinogen. Lungs form pre-cancerous lesions from layer upon layer of tar which irritate the membranes - the longer one smokes, the greater the risk of cancer. When the layers of tar and lesions have grown too many, cancer springs up. And then of course, it moves very swiftly, spreads throughout the body and kills you in a gruesome manner.
He concludes the book with some upbeat stories of those who have waged war on the cancer in their bodies, and have lived to tell the tale, thus holding out the hope that as our understanding of the cells in our bodies progresses, and technology improves, we should be able to find more cures which will not be as damaging to the patient’s body as the current ones – namely radiation and chemotherapy. From being a disease that was virtually untreatable at the turn of the century, some cancer cures have progressed to the point that simply taking a pill every day can keep a patient in remission for the rest of his life.
I highly recommend reading this book simply because we will all come face to face with this disease in our lifetimes – directly or through our friends and family. Understanding its nature will go a long way to removing the horror of the unknown. Buy The Emperor Of All Maladies: A Biography Of Cancer from Flipkart.com
P.S. This review was written by our friend, Firdaus Variava, who divides his time between the video games that he plays at work and being a Daddy Blogger. Jump to his blog by clicking here: Delirious Daddy.