The Specter of the Big "C": A Modern Look at an Age-Old Malady

By Diane Cole

March/April 2011

In a nightmare rewrite of a beloved Sesame Street ditty, the irrepressible Cookie Monster—renamed Chemo Monster—would fatalistically croon, "C is for Cancer," moan "Why me?" and warily eye his oncologist-prescribed chemical-cookie regimen before blurting out what's really on his mind: will this un-yummy treat and its side effects lead to Catastrophe, or to Cure?

Alas, so pesky and persistent is the multifarious disease we call cancer, that not even oncologists know whether there'll be a cure. Indeed, the theme that runs throughout Siddhartha Mukherjee's The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer is just how elusive cancer remains for those forced to contend with it—whether as patients, survivors, family members, medical researchers, physicians, or psychotherapists. Mukherjee, in addition to being a remarkably assured first-time author, is an oncologist at New York's Columbia University Medical Center. He began this book to avoid his own burnout from 24/7 immersion in the physical and emotional devastations that fatal diagnoses can cause, and that form part of even the most successful treatments. "The stories of my patients consumed me, and the decisions that I made haunted me," he writes.

Only by viewing cancer from the larger perspective of history's timeline could he begin to see his work, and his patients' struggles, as part of a larger story of suffering and healing, to which they could contribute by working together. By…

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