Presentation Review: The Emperor of All Maladies

LeonardRev. Dr. Leonard M. Hummel
Professor of Pastoral Theology and Pastoral Care
Gettysburg Seminary
Gettysburg, PA 17325

GayleWoloschakGayle E. Woloschak,
Northwestern University School of Medicine, Chicago IL;
Zygon Center for Religion and Science,
Lutheran School of Theology Chicago, IL;

Cancer: The Emperor of All Maladies

A Film by Barak Goodman


Ep 1 – Magic Bullets

Ep 2 – The Blind Men and the Elephant

Ep 3 – Finding the Achilles Heel


“The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer is a book written by Siddhartha Mukherjee, an Indian-born American physician and oncologist. Published on 16 November 2010 by Scribner, it won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction: the jury called it ‘an elegant inquiry, at once clinical and personal’.”

The subtitle of Mukherjee’s book, A Biography of Cancer, suggests that this life-threatening disease has a something like a life of its own, and may be reflected upon as thing unto itself.  In this clear telling of the near history of human understandings of and treatments for cancer, Siddhartha Mukherjee notes how reflecting on the inner life of cancer led him to regard it as having something like a personality: “I started imagining my project as a ‘history of cancer.  But it felt, inescapably, as if I were writing not about something but about someone.”[1] Accordingly, Mukherjee does not shy away from offering colorful and evocative descriptions the disease:

This image—of cancer as our desperate, malevolent, contemporary doppelgaenger—is so haunting because it is at least partly true. Susan Sontag warned against overburdening an illness with metaphors. But this is not a metaphor. Down to their innate molecular core, cancer cells are hyperactive, survival-endowed, scrappy, fecund, inventive copies of ourselves.[2]


These metaphorically rich descriptions of cancer arise out of scientifically precise accounts of its evolutionary processes. “If we, as a species, are the ultimate product of Darwinian selection, then so, too, is this incredible disease that lurks inside us.”[3]


We commend Mukherjee’s book, but our posts above link not to that work but to the three part, six hour PBS production based on it.   We commend that series as well—for its excellent synopsis of Mukherjee’s work and for its both incisive and hopeful commentary by leading cancer scientists.  Near the start of this documentary, Mukherjee makes this perhaps initially puzzling claim, “If the cancer cell is evolving, then so are we.”  The next six hours of documentary describe both—the discovery of cancer’s evolutionary nature and, accordingly, of our developing better treatments to combat this disease.  Having told the story of both through clear narrative and compelling images, the film, near its conclusion, returns to Mukherjee who avers that our many cycles of hope and despair in finding ways to treat cancer, in fact, have enabled us to move forward.   Then, the film ends as it began with Mukherjee stating: “If the cancer cell is evolving, then so are we.”  The viewer of the previous six hours of documentary will comprehend that progress in understanding cancer’s evolutionary nature and in our evolving responses to such understanding will continue in ways yet to be documented.


[1] Siddhartha Mukherjee, The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer (New York: Scribner, 2010), 39.

[2] Ibid., 388.

[3] Ibid., 39.


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