‘The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer’ by Siddhartha Mukherjee – Book Review

Blurb from Goodreads

Winner of the Pulitzer Prize, and now a documentary from Ken Burns on PBS, The Emperor of All Maladies is a magnificent, profoundly humane “biography” of cancer—from its first documented appearances thousands of years ago through the epic battles in the twentieth century to cure, control, and conquer it to a radical new understanding of its essence.

Physician, researcher, and award-winning science writer, Siddhartha Mukherjee examines cancer with a cellular biologist’s precision, a historian’s perspective, and a biographer’s passion. The result is an astonishingly lucid and eloquent chronicle of a disease humans have lived with—and perished from—for more than five thousand years.

The story of cancer is a story of human ingenuity, resilience, and perseverance, but also of hubris, paternalism, and misperception. Mukherjee recounts centuries of discoveries, setbacks, victories, and deaths, told through the eyes of his predecessors and peers, training their wits against an infinitely resourceful adversary that, just three decades ago, was thought to be easily vanquished in an all-out “war against cancer.” The book reads like a literary thriller with cancer as the protagonist. 

From the Persian Queen Atossa, whose Greek slave may have cut off her diseased breast, to the nineteenth-century recipients of primitive radiation and chemotherapy to Mukherjee’s own leukaemia patient, Carla, The Emperor of All Maladies is about the people who have soldiered through fiercely demanding regimens in order to survive—and to increase our understanding of this iconic disease. 

Riveting, urgent, and surprising, The Emperor of All Maladies provides a fascinating glimpse into the future of cancer treatments. It is an illuminating book that provides hope and clarity to those seeking to demystify cancer.

My Review

Fascinating and deep insight into the history of cancer research dating all the way back to an Egyptian text from 2500BC describing a ‘bulging tumour in the breast for which there was no treatment’.

This was a fairly comprehensive explanation of cancer biology that I believe can still be understood by the lay person.

However, diagrams involving the targeting of proto-/oncogenes and diagrams explaining the signalling cascade of some kinases could perhaps have helped those without a science background to understand with greater ease what exactly an oncogene is and the impact of disrupting/altering these pathways. 

The book had some great explanations into the research behind the mechanism of action and the targets of some cancer drugs in use today.

For more completion I would have liked a chapter on angiogenesis inhibitors though. 

Siddhartha Mukherjee writes with a style that is not dry or indigestible like a lot of science-heavy material but instead gives a very human touch to a topic that could seem tough and difficult to grasp in lesser hands. 

Highly recommended.

If you enjoy the section on cancer biology and want to know more about basic human genetics then I would also highly recommend The Gene: An Intimate History also written by Siddhartha Mukherjee.

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6 thoughts on “‘The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer’ by Siddhartha Mukherjee – Book Review

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