Reading Dr. Mukherjee’s masterful biography of cancer titled The Emperor of All Maladies caused one reaction in my brain, one in my heart, and one in my soul. My brain reacted in awe of how little I know about the physical world around me and in appreciation for those who have given their lives to fight this terrible disease. The book would be best categorized as historical science, covering the human experience with cancer from the time of the Egyptians up to the modern era. Of course, not much medical progress was made in the treatment or understanding of cancer until the last 150 years. Until that time, medical practice tended to cause more problems that it solved – primarily from our inability to understand the microscopic world. This fundamental misunderstanding of disease was not limited to cancer, but that is the emphasis of this book. The Emperor reads quickly, even though it covers so much ground – both chronologically and medically. Dr. Mukherjee takes us on a journey to hospitals and laboratories and symposiums around the world in his attempt to give a historical sketch of our understanding of cancer. While he lost me in a few of the pages toward the end when he begins to discuss genetics and the frontier of cancer treatment, his book still reads remarkably well for a work on such a dense topic.
But The Emperor is not just an informational monologue. The author also makes this journey personal, interspersing the stories of his patients and important patients in the history of cancer treatment. This caused the reaction from my heart. How can you not read the stories of those who have suffered so much at the hands of cancer itself and at some of the early primitive treatments without being deeply affected emotionally? Dr. Mukherjee talks about his own journey on this front – facing death almost weekly in the cancer ward and learning how closely his own life would become intertwined with the patients that he treated. His book doesn’t just move linearly from era to era; he also moves from one type of cancer to another. And with each move in his book (from leukemia to breast cancer to brain cancer to lung cancer, etc.), a person would come into my mind. Someone that I had know who fought this terrible disease and lost the battle. And so my heart would sink with each chapter – knowing that while much progress has been made, cancer is still so deadly.
But this book also impacted me spiritually. I don’t think this was necessarily Dr. Mukherjee’s intent, but it was significant for me. I say often to friends that one of the reasons that I am a Christian is because the atheistic worldview leaves humanity with only despair in the face of suffering. And that truth was brought home to me again in this book. This was the reaction in my soul – the confrontation again with the reality of death. This book is full of death – from the first chapter to the end – as any book about cancer would have to be. But it is also a book full of various responses to death. Some fighting death with tenacious energy, others surrendering to their fate, and even more trying to enjoy the last days of their lives with those they love. But in the end, they all came to the same place. Dr. Mukherjee’s writing skill is a gift, one of many reasons this book has sold so well and also won a Pulitzer Prize. But in the last page, he struggles to give hope. He gives some medical hope – that treatments will continue to advance and lifetimes will continue to be lengthened. But he struggles to give human hope. Because this is the end of medicine. The medical field is a wonder to behold, and this book as much as any other gives the reader a great appreciation for the skill, hard work, and determination of so many doctors over so many years. But the medical field runs out of answers at the end of every personal story in this book. And this is what touched my soul – the limits of science and medicine. The human being is more than the sum of his biological parts and Dr. Mukherjee’s book reminds us all that we need not less, but definitely more than the medical profession can ultimately provide.