–Siddhartha Mukherjee, MD, author of Emperor of all Maladies: A Biography of Cancer
It’s a remarkable doctor who has the vision to see and the courage to admit that the truth is far bigger than he is.
When that doctor talks about what we know and don’t know about cancer, I want to hear more.
That chance is coming this week. I hope you’ve marked your calendar, as I have, for the premier of Ken Burns’s documentary “Cancer: The Emperor of All Maladies”, airing on PBS stations the evenings of Monday March 30th through Wednesday April 1st (9-11 pm Pacific).
The film is based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning book “Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer” by oncologist Siddhartha Mukherjee, MD. In a recent interview, Mukherjee shared that his motivation to write the book came from a patient who said, “I’m willing to fight this, but what am I fighting?”
Mukherjee realized that for all that we’d developed increasingly sophisticated treatments against cancer, we still didn’t have a clear idea about the nature of what we were treating. He believes that recent scientific advances are finally addressing the nature of what cancer is at a cellular and genetic level. We may therefore be poised for significant breakthroughs in treatment.
This alone would make the series worth watching, but there’s an even more fascinating subplot to this film. In the film’s trailer, Mukherjee offers this food for thought: “Make no mistake: [cancer] is one of the most significant human challenges in our history.”
Not scientific challenges. Human challenges.
Anyone who’s had cancer or witnessed a loved one go through it would acknowledge the human challenge of the cancer experience. That’s part of what motivated Ken Burns, who at age 11 lost his mother to cancer, to make this film.
But Mukherjee courageously calls out the human challenge on the other side of the equation: the medical establishment’s persistent claims that it offers the best treatments for cancer, when there’s still much we don’t know about what cancer is, much less the best way to treat it. He explores the interests that determine which research studies proceed and which don’t, which results of research are brought to light and which aren’t.
“The most important idea is truth-telling,” he stated in a recent interview. “When medicine hides what’s known and not known, we get into trouble.”
If my experience treating those touched by cancer has taught me anything, it’s that cancer is a truth-teller. It exposes ways in which we may not have listened to our body’s signals. It exposes the flaws in our relationships. It exposes the possibility of our death. All truths, each with the possibility to launch us into a new level of appreciation: for the preciousness of time and health, for who we really are, for what we might yet do while we’re here.
Why haven’t we “won the war on cancer”, despite decades of astronomical investment? In that same period of time we’ve made huge strides against heart disease and diabetes, the other epidemics of our age. What is it about cancer that continues to elude us?
Yes, cancer is devilishly complex. It’s smart, too: sometimes it transforms itself to resist the effects of treatment, and then we’re back to square one. Scientifically, we still have our work cut out for us. But maybe the answer is bigger than science.
Perhaps as a society, cancer is challenging us to face some inconvenient truths. Maybe it’s challenging the wisdom of a fear-based system that belittles those who choose healing methods other than chemotherapy and radiation. Maybe it’s challenging us to expand our view of what medicine is: that medicine may include nutrition and herbs as well as big pharma products.
Maybe cancer wants us to know that we’ll never find the full answer in the lab, because cancer’s not just a disease of our body, but of our spirit too.
Maybe we’ll conquer cancer when we understand its truth. I look forward to what this film has to teach us.
Post your comment below: What truth has cancer revealed for you?
Then break out the popcorn, and come back next week to tell me what struck you most about the film.