Ok so. Man’s battle with cancer has been long and feisty and whatever the subtitle might say about this being a biography, it is straight up just a history of that. But a suspenseful one. Cancer is an unwieldy, many-legged creature, and because it is such a wildebeast Mukherjee can say things like ‘If every dividing cell in the body needed to be obliterated to rid it of cancer, then so be it. It was a conviction that would draw oncology into its darkest hour’ and NOT BE OVER-MELODRAMATIZING.
Because I don’t know if you know? But a lot of cancer treatments almost kill you. And to say Yes, we are going to almost-kill these children in the hopes that this will save them, especially when the rest of Science is all, Dude, do not almost-kill those children, that requires some sort of ballsy heroism. It’s very against-all-oddsy and David-vs-Goliath-esque and occasionally things-going-terribly-wrong-ish. There’s a hideous moment when this guy thinks he’s cured all these kids with leukemia and you’re like *confetti* and then some months later they all come back with brain cancer and die. It’s insanely sad.
Mukherjee marches through history, pausing to explain how medical trials are run or the pitfalls of screen tests, so that even the statistically-illiterate among us can make a stab at Getting It. The bit near the end sort of lost me, when cancer treatment starts to get a lot more biologically-based and it’s all endogenous proto-oncogene and prototypical kinase, but I have to admit I was slightly drunk when I read that part and it may not have been the book’s fault at all.
And some of it is UNEXPECTED, like the role of feminism in changing the best-practice of breast cancer surgery (they used to just cut the shit out of you with the assumption that More Cutting Is Better, but one doctor told one feminist not to let them take her collerbone because it didn’t really do any good, and suddenly they were all like OUR BODIES OURSELVES OUR PECTORAL MUSCLES and the nature of critical trials had to shift to test whether being sliced to ribbons was actually beneficial).
And I love when Sciencey Peoples throw the horns to the booknerds in their midst. Yes! Sneak in your Augean stables and your sly Anna Karenina references! We eat it up. And since most sciencey peoples are off curing cancer, we are the ones reading your book in our pajamas. Mukherjee does betray a quiet prediliction for puns – patients losing patience and all that – but can you blame him? Puns! And the first time he referred to cancer ‘slouching towards its birth’ I was all, Oho yes, what rough beast etc, but ‘slouch’ is a verb you cannot use eight or nine times a chapter without someone with two thumbs being irked (that is to say, *this guy*).
What minor peeves, though, when a book is so long and so bold. A non-fiction delight.