I can only stand cancer in fiction to a very limited degree. Too many childhood memories of my grandmother on my mom’s side and the lung cancer and treatments that eventually killed her. However, nonfiction books about diseases interest me, and I figured that nonfiction might have more distance and be less emotional than fiction. I needed an audiobook to listen to while I worked, and this one was long enough to keep me occupied for quite a while.
Considering my requirements, the beginning of this book was not promising. Mukherjee started off with the story of a patient of his, Carla - her initial odd illness and eventual cancer diagnosis. This was not the emotional distance I was looking for, and I ended up connecting to this first portion of the book more personally and painfully than I expected to. Almost a year and a half ago, I was diagnosed with chronic hepatitis C, and this early bit about Carla reminded me strongly of sitting with my hepatitis doctor and discussing what that diagnosis meant and what my choices were.
Thankfully, although he continued to touch on Carla and other patients’ stories throughout the book, Mukherjee soon turned to the overall science and history of cancer. It was fascinating and often horrifying. Since I listened to the audiobook version and didn’t take more than a couple scribbled notes while I was listening, I can’t give too many details about the sorts of topics he covered. What I'll do instead is write about the things that stuck with me.
In the back of my mind, I think I had the idea that cancer was a modern disease. Mukherjee discussed many of the misconceptions people have about cancer, and this was one of them. Just because people didn’t have the vocabulary to discuss it didn’t mean it didn’t exist. And, just because we call all sorts of cancers “cancer” doesn’t mean they’re all one monolithic disease.
The sections on attempts to cure cancer were often cringe-inducing. Although Mukherjee wrote about cancer treatment history from a physician’s perspective, my mind kept interjecting “patient’s perspective” horror. Early mastectomies performed without anesthesia. Radical mastectomies that seemed like a contest between surgeons, to see who could successfully remove the most tissue (and, in some cases, bone). I had to stop the book a few times, so that the images in my mind could dissipate.
And none of those horrors even guaranteed that the patients would remain cancer-free. Mukherjee discussed the discoveries that allowed scientists to better understand various cancers and try to develop treatments that could destroy cancer cells more directly and, hopefully, cause less lasting damage to the patients. One of the things I marveled at was how interconnected diseases and their treatments can be. Lessons learned from the treatment of cancer were applied to the treatment of AIDS and hepatitis B. I remembered seeing some of those same connections when I researched the drugs I was going to be on to treat my hepatitis C.
It felt like Mukherjee covered some of just about everything related to cancer: its history, its science, its treatment, the people who studied it and raised money to research it, the politics surrounding it. For the most part, he explained things in a clear and easy-to-understand way, although I admit I got a little lost during some of the parts near the end on proteins and genetics. I was only really aware of how long the book was during the last three or so discs, which I felt dragged a little.
I’m not sure I could call this a reassuring read, but it was, overall, fascinating and incredibly informative.
(Original review, with read-alikes, posted on A Library Girl's Familiar Diversions.)