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THE EMPEROR OF MALADIES by Siddhartha Mukherjee: Book 15 of 2011 – Dear Thursday [BEST OF FaN]

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Meanwhile here’s a report I did on a book I’m still quoting. It’s also the one non-fiction that I think everyone should read.

Originally published 04/14/11

Every so once in a while a book comes along that inspires within me so many ideas that my usual book report format just doesn’t fit. I actually finished the book back in February and have been trying to figure out a coherent way to present my notes ever since. Today I give up that struggle. I’m just going to download my thoughts as a numbered list, prefaced by these three statements: This is a very well-written book detailing the history of cancer from ancient times until right about now. It’s already my favorite non-fiction book of the year. Everyone whose life has been touched in any way by cancer should read this book.

1. Video killed the health-intiative. It is perhaps sad that we will probably never have another president with a serious health problem.  According to EMPEROR: “Polio research was shaken out of its torpor by Franklin Roosevelt in 1937.” Having been paralyzed from the waist down because of polio, Roosevelt led the charge to advance research and publicize polio. It would take decades for cancer research to find its own champions.

2. WARNING: Reading this book at first is a bit like watching HOARDERS. You will yourself feel riddled with cancer, hopeless about a cure.

3. It occurs to me that we should be more grateful for current medicine. Almost every medical procedure, tool, and pill that we take for granted really represents years, sometimes lifetimes of hard work. Scientists literally died trying to find a cure for cancer.

4. Everyone who has “beat” cancer owes their lives to the millions whose deaths provided the research upon which current cancer treatment is built. In the same vein, if your loved one has been taken away by cancer, know that her or his death counts. Millions will live in the future, because of those that died yesterday and today.

5. I wonder what we will do if and when the ultimate war on cancer is won? How will we handle the population?

6. I’m not sure why I wrote this note — it seems to have something to do with bacteria or viruses or maybe vaccinations — like I said, I’m not sure. But here’s what I wrote: “If you were blasted into the future, you would probably die within a year.”

7. We’ve only been concerned with the prevention of and studying the actual causes of cancer since the sixties. It kind of blew my mind that scientists spent hundreds of years trying to cure cancer w/o any idea of what caused it. This was partly due to short-sightedness and partly due to a lack of tools. It makes me wonder what amazing things we’ll be able to do 50 years as more and more tools become available to us. It also makes me think of all the problems I’ve tried to solve without first doing a thorough investigation of what caused them in the first place.

8. Unlike in the movies, there is almost never ever one person responsible for a medical breakthrough. It is almost always a group effort.

9. I find myself comparing books to cancer. In my opinion, books are getting better and better. Why? Because we’ve better tools to write them on — I know having to work on a typewriter would have killed my writing career if I had been born in an earlier time. A more diverse group of people have access to easier-to-use writing tools. Also, we’re better at identifying problems or cancers in books than ever before, better at extracting book cancers. This is perhaps why I find it rather egregious when folks put cancer-riddled books on the market — because I know that in most cases it’s a fully preventable disease.

10. Scientist spent a long time trying to identify a cancer-causing virus. Many of them went as far as to dismiss scientists who suggested that cancer might be caused by chromosomal abnormalities. But as we all know now, most cancers aren’t caused by a virus. Though viruses were a more attractive option, because viruses are way easier to cure than a chromosome-level issue, chromosomal abnormalities turned out to be what we were dealing with. In relation to writing, this story reminded me how we as writers often go with the more convenient solution as opposed to further examining the less convenient solution. For example I’ve read seemingly every fiction writing guide under the sun, but I’ve only read one editing book — back in 2007. About two-thirds of the way through this book, I ordered several copyediting guides.

11. Anyone who doesn’t get their kid inoculated against HPV is an idiot. Cervix cancer is one of the few that are almost completely preventable with one vaccine.

12. Experimenting on mice is necessary. It cuts down on human experiments, which is also necessary. But humans don’t like to be experimented on when their life is at stake. Anyone whose fighting for the rights of mice in cancer research should volunteer ahead of time to be part of the control group for the latest, greatest cancer medicine, b/c one of the things really holding the research back is the lack of humans who are willing to be in the control group when a possible cure is in play. Seriously, let the scientists have their effing mice.

13. There is no cure for cancer. There are only treatments, and even the best ones won’t work 100% of the time.

14. Should we be allowed to patent mice or genes ala Henrietta Lacks?

15. The ability to map the human genome is a huge breakthrough in cancer research. Now that we know — really know what we’re looking at, the nature of cancer research and treatment will change (hopefully for the better) over the next 20 years.

16. No matter how perfect the treatment, sometimes cancer just doesn’t respond to it. And even Mukherjee has to wonder about the why of cancer. While we’re busy fighting it, is it possible that it’s a form of evolution that we’re stunting somehow? We may never know. And I’m sorry if that’s confusing, but apparently if you think too hard on cancer, it can become very meta.

17. It used to be that scientists thought there would be a singular cure for cancer. For a long time medical folks went back and forth with each other, Team Surgery vs. Team Chemotherapy. Now we understand that a cancer battle must be waged on many fronts. Surgery, Chemotherapy and many other methods should all be brought to bear when fighting cancer. I think this lesson relates to all problems, including writing. There is no one solution to your novel. It’s a battle that must be waged from many different angles. And I don’t care who you are, no novel can be won with a single campaign.

Click on the book to buy EMPEROR OF MALADIES at Amazon.