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The Quest To Become The Emperor Of Cancer

03/08/2015 1:16 PM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST
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This Indian-American who was a surprise name at a time when he won the Pulitzer in 2011 has been going places ever since he won the prestigious award. In what can be a major shift in his journey of understanding and spreading a word about cancer, Dr Siddhartha Mukherjee's documentary on cancer has been nominated for an Emmy Award.

Dr Mukerjee, a physician and cancer specialist, penned the prize-winning, The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer. He always saw similarities between medicine and storytelling. It is this dual fascination and unique point-of-view that led him to write this epic narrative of cancer, a journey that is 4,000 year long. With an Emmy nomination for a PBS documentary series "Cancer: The Emperor of All Maladies" based on his book and directed by Emmy Award-winning filmmaker and writer Barak Goodman, his skills have been acknowledged at a level one can only dream of.

When he wrote the book on understanding cancer, he interspersed it with details about this yet-to-be-understood disease. What provided the baseline data are Dr Mukherjee's own experiences and revelations related to cancer. He brought into this important piece of work his unique insights and understanding of the disease that may be unnoticed for long but can prove to be fatal later on. Not to forget the psychological trauma the victim and his or her well-wishers suffer, knowing that the disease could be fatal. Cancer also comes with its own stigma, a cancer survivor may be praised for his bravado, but the stamp of a victim remains. Dr. Mukerjee offers solace to those who are stigmatised because of the disease and much insight to his fellow researchers about cancer in this seminal work. What sets his book apart is the gripping story of the disease, with various cultural contexts it appeared in detailed out, and its legacy traced back, that goes far beyond a scientific dissection of the disease. It is probably this fiction-like narrative that made it a New York Times bestseller.

The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer, is just what you'd expect from someone as distinguished as Dr Mukherjee. As an assistant professor of medicine at the Columbia University and as a cancer physician at Columbia University Medical Center, he has all the practical know-how. His professional credentials sound like a list put together from two or three extremely gifted individuals. Dr. Mukerjee, holds degrees from Standford University and Harvard Medical School in America, and University of Oxford in England. He has also been a Rhodes Scholar, a highly-respected scholarship award among the student community.

Emmy nomination for a rare medical gem such as Dr Mukherjee, can only go a long way in bridging different facets of the society.

Dr. Mukherjee's work as a physician was the seed of inspiration for Emperor of Maladies. His experiences with his patients who were curious to know about the history of the disease gave him the idea of the book. He has spoken about one particular woman who was suffering from stomach cancer but asked him questions about the origin of the disease rather its health implications. The physician was moved to put his writing skills to use, so he could describe to his clients where we have reached and where we will be next in understanding this disease. He has revealed to the world at large that cancer has a much larger biological context and simultaneously challenged researchers to uncover the medical truth about the disease.

Despite its long history, cancer still poses huge challenges for oncologists and researchers. The question raised by Emperor of Maladies is whether uncovering the commonalities of the different types of cancer will offer some clues. There is a burning need to go beyond the conventional definition of cancer, which largely confines the disease as one that affects cell division. The unique challenge of cancer also lies in the fact that while the pathology of tumor might be the same, each tumor has its own pathology. It is hence up to researchers and doctors to discover these differences and find a cure to the disease that even after 4,000 years remains unconquered by man, save individual survivors. In raising these questions, Dr. Mukherjee also asks his colleagues to acknowledge that they do not have the answer to cancer yet, and in doing so, acknowledge their arrogance and work their way out of it, but finding a cure for cancer.

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