So obviously we all hate cancer, which is as controversial an opinion as saying puppies are cute, but considering that this post is going up on a site honoring one of our own lost to the disease, this review feels a bit like critiquing a biography of Lex Luthor for the Daily Planet.
Thait said, let me adjust my robes and address the choir. The subtitle of the book is “a biography of cancer,” and it aims to follow the disease and its treatments from its discovery to the present day. It may have succeeded in this goal; however, the problem with this is outlined in a quote from its own later chapters.
“Medicine, I said, begins with storytelling. Patients tell stories to describe illness; doctors tell stories to understand it. Science tells its own story to explain diseases.”
The book functions best when it follows its own advice and tells the history of cancer as a story and relates the narratives of those afflicted; it regrettably does so only intermittently. By virtue of the increasing complexity of treatment as scientific understanding of cancer progresses, the personal stories (like that of “jimmy,” the 50’s poster boy for pediatric cancer research – actually named Einar but anglicized to appeal to the mainstream) fall by the wayside to make room for genome sequencing and antibody synthesis.
Later chapters are bogged down by technical discussion of genes and drug development rather than continuing the narrative development of our “biography” subject. As a member of clinical staff at a local children’s hospital, I am fairly well-versed in much of the lingo and familiar with many of the treatments outlined; moreover, due to autoimmune issues I’ve even taken some of them, so I’m predisposed to find this interesting, and I only occasionally did. The frustrating part is that there was plenty of opportunity to keep the personal in the narrative in these later chapters; though not referenced by name HeLa cells are noted without making even brief reference to their history or importance in cancer research, and as an entire book was written on just these cells (The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks), the omission seems all the more like a missed opportunity.
With a topic as broad as cancer, a narrative through line may have been too much to expect, but when a “biography” is promised, it’s hard not to expect more of a personal approach. This is all the more disappointing as the book is surprisingly enjoyable in its first half, and I learned many things throughout, but a lack of consistency made it a difficult one to finish.