Book Review: Emperor of All Maladies – A Biography of Cancer


“Down to their innate molecular core, cancer cells are hyperactive, survival-endowed, scrappy, fecund, inventive copies of ourselves.”
Siddhartha Mukherjee, The Emperor of All Maladies


“The tools that we will use to battle cancer in the future will doubtless alter so dramatically in 50 years that the geography of cancer prevention and therapy might be unrecognizable.” 

Siddhartha Mukherjee


Book Review:

Emperor of all Maladies – A Biography of Cancer Review by Siddhartha Mukherjee

An epic journey, spanning thousands of years, across many nations, highlighting fascinating and innovative characters, masterfully written…

The preceding descriptors sound like that of a review of a Ken Follett novel. The last thing that likely comes to mind would be a book written about cancer. However, this is indeed the case, and it is my attempt to capture what Siddartha Mukherjee has accomplished in The Emperor of all Maladies. It is no simple task to sum up this book over a few paragraphs.

It was admittedly unimaginable to me that someone could right a novel on cancer and in so doing enthrall the reader so much so that it becomes a ‘can’t put down’ book. The author eloquently personifies the “life and times” of cancer and creates an amazing story of the history of cancer.

Mukherjee has a way of describing things to give you a greater understanding of what you thought you already knew. Not only is it an enjoyable read for laymen and oncology professionals alike, it is an essential read for any healthcare professional that works in this area of practice to really put together all the knowledge you know with some outstanding insight that you probably did not have beforehand.


Spoiler Alert: Selected quotes from the novel that resonated with me:

“Cancer was not disorganized chromosomal chaos. It was organized chromosomal chaos.”


“In 2005, a man diagnosed with multiple myeloma asked me if he would be alive to watch his daughter graduate from high school in a few months. In 2009, bound to a wheelchair, he watched his daughter graduate from college. The wheelchair had nothing to do with his cancer. The man had fallen down while coaching his youngest son's baseball team.”



 “But the story of leukemia--the story of cancer--isn't the story of doctors who struggle and survive, moving from institution to another. It is the story of patients who struggle and survive, moving from on embankment of illness to another. Resilience, inventiveness, and survivorship--qualities often ascribed to great physicians--are reflected qualities, emanating first from those who struggle with illness and only then mirrored by those who treat them. If the history of medicine is told through the stories of doctors, it is because their contributions stand in place of the more substantive heroism of their patients.”



 “How can one capture genes that behave like ghosts," Weinberg wrote, "influencing cells from behind some dark curtain?”

Siddhartha Mukherjee, The Emperor of All Maladies



“Costello: I was intrigued by your suggestion that quite possibly cancer is our normalcy. What did you mean by that?

Mukherjee: The idea that we can eradicate cancer completely from our bodies and societies forever in the future, I think, is somewhat absurd. And that’s not because I’m being pessimistic or nihilistic about this project. It’s the very biological nature of cancer that makes this true. The very genes that allow our embryos to grow, our cells to grow, our bodies to grow — if you corrupt those genes, then you get cancer. And in that sense, cancer is sort of the corrupted side of our normalcy.

And that is bolstered by what I call the statistical reality of cancer — that one in two men and one in three women will face cancer in some form or the other, and one in four men or women will die of cancer in the United States. So, if those are the numbers, we can barely start calling cancer an abnormal event in our life.”


About the Pulitzer Prize Winning Author (Wikipedia):

Siddhartha Mukherjee (Bengali: সিদ্ধার্থ মুখার্জী; born 1970) is an Indian American physician, scientist and writer. He authored the 2010 book, The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer, which won the Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction, and was described, by TIME magazine, as one of the 100 most influential books of the last 100 years, and by the New York Times magazine as among the 100 best works of non-fiction.

Mukherjee's prose is known for its distinctive blend of memoir, science, medicine and literary associations into complex, looping narrative structures that move forward and backwards in time.