Author Siddhartha Mukherjee: “Cancer is a part of us”

Siddhartha Mukherjee, MD, PhD, was a postdoctoral fellow at Dana-Farber in 2003 when one of his patients asked him, “What is it, exactly, that I am battling?”

Mukherjee took this simple, yet profound, question seriously. The answer formed the basis for his 2011 Pulitzer Prize-winning book, The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer. Mukherjee’s spellbinding story spans 4,000 years, beginning with Egyptian hieroglyphs that reference a woman with a disease we now know to be breast cancer.

Several Dana-Farber physicians, scientists, and patients are featured in the book, most notably the Institute’s founder, Sidney Farber, MD.

Now an assistant professor of medicine at Columbia University, Mukherjee shares what he learned in writing the book, a project he says is not only about cancer, but also about his coming of age as an oncologist.

Cancer is a part of us. Every life is touched by the family of diseases we call cancer. In the U.S., one in three women and one in two men will develop some form of cancer.

Dr. Sidney Farber is a main character in the story of cancer, for his political and scientific contributions. One of the inventors of modern chemotherapy, Farber had a crucial insight: the importance of bringing cancer alive in the public imagination. When he launched the first “Jimmy” campaign in 1948 [laying the foundation for today’s Jimmy Fund], he brought cancer research out of his basement laboratory and into the bright light of publicity.

Later, he kept cancer in the public eye through his partnership with philanthropist Mary Lasker, using the word “crusade” as he unveiled his vision for a campaign that would later become President Nixon’s “War on Cancer.”

We study the past to explain the present. The isolation and rage of a 36-year-old woman with stage III breast cancer today has ancient echoes in Atossa, a Persian queen who swaddled her diseased breast in cloth, then had a slave cut it off with a knife.

The way we imagine cancer has changed just as much as the way we treat it. Every era imagines cancer differently. Once, it was thought that cancer came from black bile in the body. A woman in 1930 imagined breast cancer very differently from a woman in 1980. Today, we have to get used to the idea of a deadly illness emerging from our own healthy cells. The very genes that play a role in normal physiology can also unleash cancer.

Patients are at the center of the story. Although many doctors and scientists enter and exit the stage, patients are at the center. I dedicate my book to Robert Sandler, the first child to receive chemotherapy [from Sidney Farber, MD], and I feature Carla, who survived, and Germaine, who did not. I end with Germaine’s story because it is very important to realize this book is not about victory; there is so much more work to be done.