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The Emperor of All Maladies by Siddhartha Mukherjee



The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer by Siddhartha Mukherjee tells the story of cancer from the first documented cases to the hopeful news that targeted therapy is on the horizon. Interspersed in the scientific data are personal stories of Siddhartha Mukherjee’s experiences as a clinician and researcher.

the emperor of all maladies book coverThe Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer by Siddhartha Mukherjee tells the story of cancer from the first documented cases (possibly 2 million years ago!) to the hopeful news that targeted therapy is on the horizon for many cancers.   This book covers the evolution of treatments which has consisted of goat’s dung, cancer-curing and cancer-causing radiation and chemotherapy,  radical surgeries and operations on kitchen tables and genetically based treatments.   It also covers leaders in cancer research and the political and fundraising efforts to raise awareness of cancer.   Interspersed in the scientific data are personal stories of Siddhartha Mukherjee’s experiences as a clinician and researcher.

From the Book Flap:

The Emperor of All Maladies is a magnificent, profoundly humane “biography” of cancer—from its first documented appearances thousands of years ago through the epic battles in the twentieth century to cure, control, and conquer it to a radical new understanding of its essence. Physician, researcher, and award-winning science writer, Siddhartha Mukherjee examines cancer with a cellular biologist’s precision, a historian’s perspective, and a biographer’s passion. The result is an astonishingly lucid and eloquent chronicle of a disease humans have lived with—and perished from—for more than five thousand years.Continue reading...

The story of cancer is a story of human ingenuity, resilience, and perseverance, but also of hubris, paternalism, and misperception. Mukherjee recounts centuries of discoveries, setbacks, victories, and deaths, told through the eyes of his predecessors and peers, training their wits against an infinitely resourceful adversary that, just three decades ago, was thought to be easily vanquished in an all-out “war against cancer.” The book reads like a literary thriller with cancer as the protagonist.

From the Persian Queen Atossa, whose Greek slave cut off her malignant breast, to the nineteenth-century recipients of primitive radiation and chemotherapy to Mukherjee’s own leukemia patient, Carla, The Emperor of All Maladies is about the people who have soldiered through fiercely demanding regimens in order to survive—and to increase our understanding of this iconic disease.

Riveting, urgent, and surprising, The Emperor of All Maladies provides a fascinating glimpse into the future of cancer treatments. It is an illuminating book that provides hope and clarity to those seeking to demystify cancer. 


Book Club Party Ideas for The Emperor of All Maladies

Pink Azalea Flowers

In a touching part of the book, Siddhartha Mukherjee brought a bouquet of azaleas to a patient that had reached a monumental anniversary of being cancer free.

Lewis Carroll Alice in Wonderland

Decorations could also include a copy of Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass.  Siddhartha Mukherjee compares cancer to the Red Queen, one of the characters from that book.   The researchers, like the Red Queen, are forced to keep running merely to keep still.

For party favors I recommend handing out cancer screening cards, such as how to do a breast exam.   These can be purchased from the Susan B. Komen website with 25% of the purchase price donated to Susan B. Komen for the Cure or it can be downloaded for free.

A cancer-fighting cookbook would make a great door prize.  Click on the picture to learn more about these cookbooks available for purchase on Amazon:

Cookbook for Cancer Prevention

Cancer Prevention Cookbook

Cancer Prevention Foods


Book Club Menu

The Emperor of All Maladies is a nonfiction book without many references to food so I focused on the structure of DNA when planning what food to make.  It is the mutations or changes in DNA that affect genes that cause unlimited cell growth in cancer.  Mitochondria is what provides energy to those cells.

I made breadsticks that loosely resemble the double helix of DNA. You could also use this idea to make a whole loaf of bread or twist together refrigerated breadsticks.

Dna - Double Helix  Cheese breadsticks recipes

Ribbon candy always reminded me of mitochondria.

mitochondria picture wavy ribbon candy looks like mitochondria

For more ideas for a medically themed book club party, visit this blog post.


Book Club Resources

Ratings at the time this post was published

Goodreads:  4.37 (529 ratings)
Amazon:  4.5 stars (122 reviews)
Barnes and Noble:  3.5 stars (107 ratings)   *There were one star ratings because of the price of the Nook
My rating:  4 stars.   Sometimes real life is scarier than fiction.   The opening of the book when he describes the hospital as the blood of one of his patients is being examined is chilling.  The book is heavily scientific in some parts that slowed it down a bit for me.

Book Reviews

“It’s hard to think of many books for a general audience that have rendered any area of modern science and technology with such intelligence, accessibility, and compassion. The Emperor of All Maladies is an extraordinary achievement.”—The New Yorker

“Rarely have the science and poetry of illness been so elegantly braided together as they are in this erudite, engrossing, kind book. Mukherjee’s clinical wisdom never erases the personal tragedies which are its occasion; indeed, he locates with meticulous clarity and profound compassion the beautiful hope buried in cancer’s ravages.”–Andrew Solomon, National Book Award-winning author of The Noonday Demon

“Emperor is a great, once-in-a-decade book of unimaginable mission-driven ambition. It succeeds first by painting a kaleidoscope of the dimensions that cancer resides in, including the science that everyone who is touched by the disease pins their hopes on.” – The Doctor Weighs In Blog

Book Club Discussion Questions for The Emperor of All Maladies

  1. Mukherjee combines scientific details with stories of his patients.  Do you think he balanced these two subjects well?  Would you have liked to have seen more of one subject?
  2. Mukherjee talks about the relationship between patients and their doctors.  In your experience, how has this relationship changed over the years?
  3. It is disturbing to read about the treatments and surgeries that were performed on cancer patients in the past.  Would research and treatment come as far as it has without such experiments?  Would you be willing to undergo experimentation in the hopes of advancing medical knowledge?
  4. Mary Lasker is inspiring in her efforts to raise money and spread awareness of cancer.  Who are some of the figures of today that are trying to accomplish the same goal?  What can each of us do to participate?
  5. If your life has been touched by cancer, did this book provide comfort?  Hope?

Purchase The Emperor of All Maladies at your favorite bookseller

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About the Author

Siddhartha Mukherjee is a cancer physician and researcher. He is an assistant professor of medicine at Columbia University and a staff cancer physician at Columbia University Medical Center. A Rhodes scholar, he graduated from Stanford University, University of Oxford, Harvard Medical School. He has published articles in Nature, The New England Journal of Medicine, The New York Times, and The New Republic. He lives in New York with his wife and daughters.

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  1. This book charts the history of cancer treatments – right from the time of Persian queens to the very recent ones. And Mr. Mukherjee does it with a sense of detachment – though he himself has been treating a lot of his patients using techniques mentioned in the pages. The story begins with one of his patient’s worsening conditions and ends with that patient becoming better. But what lies between is the crux of the matter. How doctors, chemists and the like have persevered over decades if not centuries in the modern medicinal world to uproot cancer without knowing how it is caused is amusing yet threatening. A very well written and grasping book by the doctor. No wonder that it won the Pulitzer.

    Comment by Amit Agarwal on March 14, 2014 at 10:57 am

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