Malignant: How Cancer Becomes Us

Malignant: How Cancer Becomes Us

Malignant: How Cancer Becomes Us

Malignant: How Cancer Becomes Us


Nearly half of all Americans will be diagnosed with an invasive cancer--an all-too ordinary aspect of daily life. Through a powerful combination of cultural analysis and memoir, this stunningly original book explores why cancer remains so confounding, despite the billions of dollars spent in the search for a cure. Amidst furious debates over its causes and treatments, scientists generate reams of data--information that ultimately obscures as much as it clarifies. Award-winning anthropologist S. Lochlann Jain deftly unscrambles the high stakes of the resulting confusion. Expertly reading across a range of material that includes history, oncology, law, economics, and literature, Jain explains how a national culture that simultaneously aims to deny, profit from, and cure cancer entraps us in a state of paradox--one that makes the world of cancer virtually impossible to navigate for doctors, patients, caretakers, and policy makers alike. This chronicle, burning with urgency and substance leavened with brio and wit, offers a lucid guide to understanding and navigating the quicksand of uncertainty at the heart of cancer. Malignant vitally shifts the terms of an epic battle we have been losing for decades: the war on cancer.


I knew a woman who went to medical school because she wanted to be with people at critical, life-changing moments; she imagined that sharing dire information would create an intense mutual experience.

My own decidedly undramatic life-changing moment took place in a tiny, somewhat battered office. The doctor flipped back and forth and back again among the three pages of the report she had received from my radiologist. As she fidgeted, I surveyed the posters on her office wall of Banff National Park, in the Canadian Rockies, where I had been hiking the previous day as I wound up a visit with my parents before flying back to my job in California.

As my eyes wandered, I could tell the doctor really, really didn’t want to look at me. Finally, she glanced up and, in a last-ditch effort to avoid her part in the vaunted Bad News Experience, asked if I already knew what the report said. I shook my head.

A few minutes later, as we drove away from the curling-edged posters in that office and toward the surgeon’s office to see how soon I could get the cancer out, my mother called my dad and asked him to look after the kids for another couple of hours. Meanwhile, I looked at more pictures—this time, those in the brochure the nurse had given me. I speculated on what “invasive” meant. Half of all Americans will be forced to consider this word at some point, and half of those will die wondering why the billions of research dollars thrown at the word haven’t exterminated it from the English language.

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