Just where are we in the war on cancer? You're hoping to find out the answer to that question when you read Siddhartha Mukherjee's highly acclaimed The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer. And you do, though the answer is not excactly what you're hoping to find.
Yet there is progress, and Mukherjee makes the history of that progress interesting and inspirational. The historical narrative coarses naturally through all kinds of other issues, ethical and political. Most of it was new to me, some of it was history I'd lived through but forgotten.
I'd forgotten about the details of Nixon's war on cancer, about Alexander Solzhenitsyn's Cancer Ward, about Brian's Song, about the movie of Love Story, about Bang the Drum Slowly, and about hundreds of books and movies like them.
I recall being stuck in an airport bar with some other stranded passengers, years ago, our planes grounded by the snowy weather. We began discussing our favorite love stories in movies, and I tried to explain to them the plot of Sweet November (1968), the one starring Sandy Dennis. A woman decides to spend the rest of her life rehibilatating one man at a time, living with each man a month, meeting strangers and taking them in, then picking up another for the next month, and the next, and so on.
The bar got quieter as several woman turned around on their bar stools so as to hear me too. Apparently they had not seen this movie, and I had their interest so far. But as soon as I said that it turns out that the character she plays has terminal cancer, the women frowned and turned away. No, wait, I said. I should have explained that this is a very old movie, from back when this story was not yet so commonplace. Nowadays, cancer has become a cliche. Sandy Dennis herself got it some years after she made this movie, and it killed her.
Hell, everybody's got it. Or if you don't have it yet, you've known plenty of people, loved ones and friends, whose lives were transfigured by it. It has indeed become the "emperor of all maladies."
I read Mukherjee's fine work on the heels of finishing Let's Talk: A Story of Cancer and Love by author Evan Hunter a.k.a. mystery novelist Ed McBain. McBain wrote some of his best books in the dozen years he battled his illness, which was eventually diagnosed as cancer, and which took his life about the time that this book was published.
It was only published in England, which makes me think that his long-time American publishers did not consider the book economically viable. Too bad, for it is a sterling memoir also discussing his bookish lifestyle and the love of his life. But as with the women back in that airport bar, people tend to turn away from cancer stories.
As if they know too much about it as it is.