Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

Getting Closer to Our Immortal Enemy

Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

Getting Closer to Our Immortal Enemy

Article excerpt

Byline: CHRISTIAN JESSEN

THE EMPEROR OF ALL MALADIES: A BIOGRAPHY OF CANCER by Siddhartha Mukherjee (Fourth Estate, [pounds sterling]25) A STUDY of cancer is hardly a book description that has me racing to the bookshelves. This may be because I've seen too many horrors on the oncology wards to want to spend my spare time further immersed in it. Or possibly it's due to an earlier conditioning, received at medical school, that told us never to use the word "cancer" in front of our patients but rather to shroud the horrible truth in anaemic terms like "neoplasm" or "growth" (horribly patronising and I hope we no longer do this). So the arrival of just such a weighty tome didn't fill me with eager anticipation.

The author describes this work as "an attempt to enter the mind of this immortal illness, to understand its personality, to demystify its behaviour". That's quite a challenge, and consequently the book is very complete, and very detailed. You will need to give the complexities of molecular genetics, Her-2 receptors and neu and ras oncogenes a good go. But persevere and you will find that it is well worth the effort simply because it is so beautifully written; this is literature, not popular science.

On the surface, the author's decision to call this book a biography seems rather pompous, affected and overambitious, but it's his elegant prose and his desire to treat the subject not just as a disease, a scientific problem or a social condition, but also as a character, the ultimate baddy against whom we continue to wage war, that justifies it.

For me it wasn't the biology of cancer that was most intriguing but the background. Historical characters such as the Persian queen Atossa who, on finding an ulcerating tumour in her breast, ordered her slave to cut off the afflicted part in what must surely be the first recorded mastectomy, and the many interspersed stories of the writer's own patients, bring the true impact of the disease to life. …

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