The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer

Reposting the review because the Audiobook is the Audible Daily Deal for Dec 3 – $5.95

The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of CancerTakeaway: The history of cancer is a good proxy for the history of medicine.

The Emperor of All Maladies deserves all of the praise (and the Pulitzer) it has received.

Like most really good popular non-fiction books, it understands the necessary balance between the presenting facts and telling stories.

Almost every times I started to get slightly bored by the science or history, the author told a story.  But the stories never took over the book, they only supplemented the history or science.

What I found most interesting about the book was how often cancer was a part of technical innovation that affected others areas.  Medicine was improved because of surgery to removed cancer.  Cancer clinical trials were the root of a lot of changes in mathematics, social science research and insurance modeling.  Human trials and medical ethics were expanded and changed and re-evaluated throughout medical history in large part because of cancer research.

But it is also interesting that medicine used a lot of currently existing science and adapted it to cancer.  Most early drugs were taken from commercially used clothing dyes or other commercially used chemicals.  And most early drugs were simply found by trial and error more than a complete understanding of the science behind what is going on with the drug.

It is only recently that science had developed far enough that drugs are being developed specifically for cancer instead of adapting already existing chemicals.  The end of the book really gives an overview of the current state of Oncology and cancer treatment.  The author is very hopeful that the ongoing small steps will lead to exponential growth in the ability to treat and possibly prevent cancer.

The structure of the book is to tell the many stories of Cancers (plural), since Cancer is really a whole field of tangentially related diseases.  There is a section on Leukemia, one on Breast Cancer, and Lung Cancer, etc.  Each of the sections give a history of the identification and treatment.  But it also presents the different forms of cancer as part of an overall story of how the medicine has changed.  And the book has some strong language for some of the mis-steps of history.  And more than a few comments about where science almost made a big discovery.

Overall this is a hopeful book about a horrible disease.  It is fairly long (nearly 600 pages or 21 hours of audio) and detailed.  But the thoroughness is warranted.

The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer by Siddhartha Mukherjee Purchase Links: Kindle Edition, Paperback, Audiobook


This was a great book. As a family doctor, I see cancer often and have some knowledge in this area of medicine. But I learned a lot of history. I highly recommend it.

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