The Comfort of Science

Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer  by Siddhartha Mukherjee

There are loads of you out there who love to read a fat book (Hi, Mom!). You're drawn to authors like David McCullough, Robert Jordan and George R.R. Martin. I've always regretted that I'm not one of you. I was not at all looking forward to reading this fat book, but it was for a book club so there was no getting around it. I cajoled myself with thoughts like, 'it won the Pulitzer Prize--it'll be good for you,' like it was a giant vitamin, and 'c'mon, you really like science writing.'

So I did it. I read Emperor of All Maladies  because I had to. And sometimes when you read something you wouldn't normally choose, you stumble on something that will keep you thinking for weeks after. Like the little boys, as young as 4, who were apprenticed or indentured as chimney sweeps in England during the 17 and 1800's, working nearly naked in flues as narrow as nine inches square. If asphyxiation or burns didn't get them as kids, then dying in young adulthood from cancer caused by the soot that stuck to their bodies seemed almost guaranteed. I'm thinking of the sort of 'why don't we try this?' experimentation on cancer patients through history. I'm thinking of the horrifying, radical surgeries, done for decades, with the idea that cancer could be physically removed by surgeons if they just removed enough flesh. I'm thinking of the amazing discoveries of scientists that seemed almost random, like a light bulb suddenly went off over their heads in a very, very dark room.

We've all lost a loved one or friend or neighbor or coworker to cancer. Or maybe you're fighting its spread in your own body right now. Every week it's in the news. A new medication, a gene discovered, a warning about food or chemicals or the environment. Strangely, and I didn't expect this, reading Emperor was a comfort to me. That we really have made progress. That each form of cancer is so specific, working on the big picture is important. And working on the rare, one-in-a-million cancers is just as important, because the science behind a discovery is always connected to something else, even if we don't know what it is right away.

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