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Reading Cancer: Books that Connect the Science and the Emotions of Cancer


Ken Burns Presents Cancer: The Emperor of All Maladies, the much anticipated film by Barak Goodman will debut this week. Based on Siddhartha Mukherjee’s 2010 Pulitzer Prize‐winning book, The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer, the three‐part, six‐hour documentary series airs on PBS stations throughout the country on March 30, 31, and April 1 at 9 PM local time.

The film tracks the history of cancer over thousands of years, beginning with the first known records of cancer in ancient Egyptian papyri and concluding with the latest cutting-edge breakthroughs and discoveries. Both Mukherjee’s “biography” of cancer and the documentary series help set the stage for an era in which cancer may become a chronic or curable illness rather than the deadly killer it has been up to now. 

The idea for the documentary series began when  WETA President and CEO Sharon Percy Rockefeller read Mukherjee’s book during treatment for cancer at The Johns Hopkins Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center in Baltimore. Soon after, she connected  with Emmy Award-winning producer Ken Burns and began planning the documentary. “We will illuminate cancer as never before, exploring in depth its history, sharing the experiences of those battling it, and offering new hope by spotlighting some of the most extraordinary research being done today,” she said when the series was first announced.

Blending personal human connection and compelling, clearly explained science is a formula that can provide powerful learning opportunities for the general public. This is especially true when the subject is cancer, a disease that has become a part of daily life for too many of us. The Emperor of All Maladies and all of the books listed below honestly and passionately confront the human cost of cancer.

The List

Armstrong, Sue. p53: The Gene That Cracked the Cancer Code. New York: Bloomsbury USA, 2015. 
The p53 gene suppresses the formation of tumors. Its role in cancer biology has made it one of the most studied genes in history because the disabling of its ability to suppress tumors is found in the development of most kinds of cancer. This book tells the story of its discovery and of the efforts to understand it in order to understand what happens in our cells when they turn cancerous. Utilizing the personal accounts of key researchers, the book gives readers a behind the scenes look at the hunt for new cures that are made possible by research on the p53 gene, including the promise of cutting-edge individualized cancer treatments.

Fies, Brian. Mom's Cancer. New York: Abrams Image, 2006.  
Upon learning that his mother had both lung cancer and a brain tumor, award-winning writer turned to his work for solace. Since he is a graphic novelist,  his story is told as a web comic. It is a moving, lovely, and sometimes funny account of how cancer affects families, including accurate details about the diagnosis and treatment. In July 2005, Mom's Cancer won the comic industry's Eisner Award for Best Digital Comic. It was subsequently published by Abrams Books and is no longer available as a webcomic, but still available in print and as an ebook.

Jain, Sarah S. Lochlann. Malignant: How Cancer Becomes Us. Oakland, CA: University of California Press, 2013. 
This compelling book explores why cancer remains so confounding, despite the billions of dollars spent in the search for a cure. Award-winning anthropologist Sarah S. Lochlann unravels the societal complexities  of cancer from a variety of perspectives including history, oncology, law, economics, and literature. Jain explains how the current culture of cancer aims to deny, profit from, and cure cancer all at the same time. This, in turn, results in a cancer paradox that makes it nearly impossible for doctors, patients, caretakers, and policy makers to find their way. Jain offers a guide to understanding and navigating through this uncertain cancer culture and perhaps to even changing the balance of power that has characterized the losing battle against cancer.

Johnson, George. The Cancer Chronicles: Unlocking Medicine's Deepest Mystery. New York: Knopf, 2013. 
Award winning science writer George Johnson weaves together a fascinating narrative of cancer research in the laboratories with the very personal and moving story of his wife’s uterine cancer. As do many people whose loved ones receive a devastating diagnosis, Johnson set out to learn as much as he could about the disease. Because he is a brilliant science writer and communicator, he is able to tell the story of cancer in a way that clarifies and informs the reader about the current state of cancer research, including many surprising areas of inquiry.

Mukherjee, Siddhartha. The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer. New York: Scribner, 2010. 
This is a very inspiring and emotional account of mankind’s struggle with cancer, including the still ongoing battle against this dreadful disease. Throughout the volume, Mukherjee deftly shifts between the tales of his own patients and the way cancer has emerged in the public’s knowledge and imagination. The author’s excellent presentation of the cellular pathways and genes involved in cancer in the last part of the book is remarkable. Thought provoking and very enlightening, The Emperor of All Maladies rightfully deserved the Pulitzer Prize it won for the nonfiction category. 

Stark, Lizzie. Pandora's DNA: Tracing the Breast Cancer Genes through History, Science, and One Family Tree. Chicago: Chicago Review Press. 2014. 
Science writer Lizzie Stark documents her own very personal experiences after she discovers that she has inherited a harmful mutation in BRCA1, which greatly increases her risk of developing both breast and ovarian cancer. Like Angelina Jolie, she chooses the option of a double mastectomy in order to mitigate the risk. In this book she leads readers through the process, detailing both her experiences and the science involved in BRCA mutations. Her personal story frames a larger narrative about the BRCA genes, one that touches upon legal and ethical implications as well as scientific developments and breakthroughs.

Wapner, Jessica. The Philadelphia Chromosome: A Genetic Mystery, a Lethal Cancer, and the Improbable Invention of a Lifesaving Treatment. New York: The Experiment; Reprint edition (March 19, 2014) 
The Philadelphia chromosome is an abnormality of chromosome 22 in which part of chromosome 9 is transferred to it. Bone marrow cells that contain the Philadelphia chromosome are often found in chronic myelogenous leukemia and sometimes found in acute lymphocytic leukemia. Its discovery in 1960 by Peter Nowell provided evidence for a genetic link to cancer. Thirty years later, the Philadelphia chromosome was recognized as the sole cause of chronic myeloid leukemia (CML), a deadly blood cancer. In The Philadelphia Chromosome, science journalist Jessica Wapner recounts the history (and science) of this chromosomal abnormality and the road from its discovery to a lifesaving treatment for CML. The story is told as a result of impeccable research by Wapner, including more than 35 interviews with researchers, doctors, and patients.

Wheelwright, Jeff. The Wandering Gene and the Indian Princess: Race, Religion, and DNA. New York: W.W. Norton, 2012.  
Jeff Wheelwright takes us on an interesting journey from Israel to Culebra, Colorado, weaving a tapestry of genetics, population migration, and history with its final impact on Shonnie Medina, the main protagonist of his book. The story revolves around the breast cancer associated gene BRCA1 and its variants, how they came to affect a substantial portion of the American Indian-Hispanic Medina family, and how religious beliefs can affect disease outcomes. It beautifully intertwines Jewish history with the Spanish Inquisition, the Spanish migration into Mexico and North America and the cauldron of genetic mixing culminating in a strange but pronounced dominance of many "Jewish" genes into seemingly unrelated Hispanics in North America.