A Biography of Cancer. How could I even think of reviewing this book. If I could say it in three words, it would be – A Must read. For people who like to read about medicine and surgeries. Siddhartha Mukherjee makes it an enthralling read, despite the heavy subject.
Siddhartha Mukherjee takes us on a journey from the ancient times to cancer in today’s world – a four thousand-year history. A very relevant book, in a world where almost all of us know someone affected by the Big C. It is a wonderfully written history of Cancer and it’s treatments. The tale of how physicians were baffled, frustrated by it, how they analysed and fought to conquer this terrible disease. A book that is as much about the physicians that fought the disease as the patients who fought and lived through the pain and the trauma of the disease – some emerging triumphant, while others losing the battle.
Mukherjee calls this book , ‘an attempt to enter the mind of this immortal illness, to understand its personality, to demystify its behavior’. And that is exactly what the books turns out to be. He also calls the book. ‘a personal journey of my coming-of-age as an oncologist’.
There are two main characters in the ‘story’ of cancer – Sidney Farber, who is called the father of modern chemotherapy. His story, his perseverance, his determination is an amazing read. Mary Lasker features as the other strong character in the book, changing the way, America and the world viewed cancer. Her relentless campaigning brought to the fore, the need for cancer research, and made it a battle for the whole nation, rather than a battle of a few doctors and patients. The book made makes one understand what actually went on for all these years in the battle against cancer, one of the biggest killers of our time.
The historical journey is fascinating to read. One of the first likely reports of cancer is Alossa, a Persian Queen who possibly had breast cancer, and was convinced by her slave to cut off her breast to cure her. Apparently even medieval surgeons practiced mastectomy using primitive surgical methods – there are accounts of such surgeries in the 1500s and 1600s. Fascinating, isn’t it? The way cancer was treated a couple of hundred years ago, was still scary, to say the least. From an age where bloodletting, purging, leaching were common practices, surgeons figured out that cutting out the cancerous body part helps. Radical surgery started with surgeons cutting as much as possible to kill the cancer. So much so that if the cancer did not kill the patient, the surgery might definitely do so. Most of the surgery was done with no anesthetic until 1884, when cocaine came into use as an anesthetic. Along with the history of cancer, it also gives us a glimpse of medical practices over the years, and how dedicated medical professionals have worked to improve on what they know.
This book is as much about the patients as it is about the doctors. Reading about the patients makes you sad, and hopeful at the same time. And it also made my respect for oncologists go up a million times. Reading a book was enough to move me, they do this on a regular basis. Facing cancer, fighting it, and living it with their patients…
This was one of the toughest books to review. What to mention, and what not to? It is such a wonderful book, that I can’t stop talking about it. I really don’t think I can do justice to this book review. If you enjoy reading books of this sort, please, please don’t miss it, it is a must read.