Friday, October 14, 2011

Thoughts on a Pulitzer Prize winner

Emperor of all maladies: a biography of cancer is this year’s Pulizter Prize winner. Siddhartha Mukherjee’s background is oncology; he writes as a scientist but details his own experiences as a clinician.

Tracing humanity’s long struggle with cancer over thousands of years, he makes very clear that cancer is not one disease but many.   He describes the successes and failures of science and technology in treating cancer, giving credit to many researchers who labored without success or acknowledgement but never gave up. His tales of patients surviving and sometimes dying are heartbreaking. 

On his patient Germaine Berne, struggling with a rare gastrointestinal tumor:
"Germaine had fought cancer obsessively, cannily, desperately, fiercely, madly, brilliantly and zealously…She had deployed every morsel of energy to the quest, mobilizing and remobilizing the last dregs of her courage…until, that final evening, she had stared into the vault of her resourcefulness and found it empty."

This is a dense book but beautifully written.  He talks of cancer cells “sullenly” making another approach in the body when they are blocked by chemotherapy.  His interview with one of the few survivors of an early chemotherapy (1960’s) for leukemia really stayed with me long after I finished the book:

“I feel as if I slipped through… I don’t know why I deserved the illness in the first place, but then I don’t know why I deserved to be cured.  Leukemia is like that.  It mystifies you.  It changes your life.”  

 Here is an author who writes well about something people don’t even want to think about, let alone read-and then makes you want to read more.   This is great nonfiction. 

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