…cancer remained relatively rare until the early 20th century, when a steady rise in life expectancy propelled this disease of aging cells to its current position as the second-leading cause of death (a ranking it had assumed by 1940). Most of the book’s action takes place during the past 100 years, as Mukherjee traces the recent stunning transformations in our scientific and societal image of cancer – from a death sentence, to a mysterious foe to be bludgeoned with radical surgery and chemotherapy, to a rallying cry for activists in a politically fueled war, and ultimately to an array of separate, endlessly resourceful diseases, distortions of normal human biology that must be understood at the cellular level before they can be vanquished. “It lives desperately, inventively, fiercely, territorially, cannily, and defensively – at times, as if teaching us how to survive,” Mukherjee writes.
And what a story – full of quixotic characters, therapeutic triumphs and setbacks with all the hubris and pathos of Greek tragedy. There’s William Halsted, the obsessive, cocaine- and morphine-addicted surgeon whose disfiguring operation, the radical mastectomy, turned out to be needlessly aggressive for early breast cancer and useless for tumors that had spread, yet was inflicted on 500,000 women between 1891 and 1981. There’s chemotherapist Sidney Farber and socialite Mary Lasker, a dynamic duo who invented the modern marketing of a disease as a social and political cause. Lasker, a masterful lobbyist, helped launch and fund the National Cancer Institute in the 1950s, leading over the ensuing decades to the development of curative chemotherapy for some cancers and culminating with President Nixon’s declaration of a national war on cancer in 1971. It was the perfect Cold War metaphor at a time when the United States, its military stalemated in Vietnam, was preoccupied with societal decay from within….
Read it all.