Cancer is the most feared of all illnesses. It strikes one of every two men and one of every three women during their lives. So now we have an visual experience which helps us to understand what cancer is, how it has changed, what oncologists use to treat it, and how a patient can successfully overcome cancer.
The film Cancer: the Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer has recently appeared on PBS. It is based on the Pulitzer prize-winning book by Siddhartha Mukherjee, which is an excellent read. Let me give you my thoughts on the film.
The first segment of the three part series evokes intense emotions in viewers. It helps to juxtapose the historical challenges with the modern therapies, many times successful and sometimes not, with compassion and sensitivity. Personally, it is wonderful to see videos and photos of my past colleagues whom I knew personally and who contributed to my career in its early stages, and who bequeathed a generation of fine laboratory, translational and clinical scientists whose work and achievements are today curing so many patients.
In part 2, the writers focus on the book's excellent review of the history of trying to find the cause of cancer. Although the focus only on a few specific gene mutations has oversimplified the biology of this devastating disease, the film helps put the varied causes of cancer (inherited mutations, acquired mutations, cancer producing chemicals, viruses, environmental causes and even hormonal causes) into an understandable framework for people including people who have cancer as well as people whose families have been challenged by cancer. And the compassionate recording of individual patients' struggles to obtain remissions, cure, and palliation touch every viewer's emotions. The second part succeeds in demonstrating the incredible power of translational research carrying basic science findings into the lives of patients and, in many cases shown in the film, creating remissions and cures.
In part 3, I was impressed by how sad I was at seeing many of the patients dying of their cancer, and the compassion I felt for their families. But, that is often the reality of caring for patients with cancer, the same emotions I feel every day in my office. But later in this segment, I was impressed by how well the filmmakers gave viewers hope, the real hope that my patients also experience when learning about new treatments that have been approved by the FDA, or when entering clinical trials. It is this hope that sustains patients, their families, and all of us who care for patients facing cancer.
The courage of the patients, who agreed to have their lives and treatments filmed to share with us, must be admired by everyone who sees this film. It is their stories and courage that will inspire other patients who fear treatments to undergo therapy, even on clinical trials, with hope and confidence.
As the author of the book described, cancer is evolving and so are we. I would rephrase this just a little. Our understanding of cancer and how to successfully treat it and the symptoms it produces is evolving and improving; and our ability to cope with cancer is also evolving with more confidence and hope in the future. I give my kudos to the producer Barak Goodman and Ken Burns for this excellent film.
Here are my tips for you:
- If you have ever been touched by cancer personally, in your family, or with your friends, watch this film Cancer: the Emperor of All Maladies.
- Think about the successful strategies that patients use in the documentary: second opinions, clinical trials, using new treatments, discussing cancer with family and friends and other patients and see if you can use them yourself. For more advice on these strategies, see my book Surviving American Medicine.
- Supplement information in the film with other online sources, such as the National Cancer Institute, Center for Disease Control, American Society of Clinical Oncology, National Comprehensive Cancer Centers, and American Cancer Society.
- You've seen the film, now read the book! Get a copy of this book by Siddhartha Mukkherjee and appreciate the rich descriptions of the history and biology of this illness.