Must See TV

This short entry is to encourage those of you who are interested to watch the upcoming PBS special on cancer this week (March 30-April 1 — check your local listings for times). The 3-day, 6-hour special is produced by Ken Burns (that same Ken Burns who has documented the Civil War, baseball, and jazz) and is based on the Pulitzer-prize winning book (in 2010) The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer, by Siddhartha Mukherjee, M.D.  You can see a trailer and read a summary of the project on Burns’ website.

Given Burns’ previous work on the Civil War, it is fitting that he would take on the topic of cancer.  Although Richard Nixon initiated the “War on Cancer” in 1971, far too many of us know that war has not been won.

I purchased a copy of Mukherjee’s book about a year ago, but decided that I would postpone reading it, for a couple of reasons.  It’s a big book — approaching 500 pages — and includes descriptions of the science and research involved with this disease, from the earliest records of its appearance in ancient Egypt to the present day. In other words, it’s not light reading.

But it is well worth reading for a better understanding of what the disease is, why it has been so hard to eradicate, and why, unfortunately, we may never be able to do so. The more we know about cancer, the more there is to know.  And although some cancers are now curable, many are not, largely because each instance of cancer is a unique illness in a unique host.

Even if you haven’t been affected by cancer, the book is worth reading for a larger understanding of a disease that is projected by the World Health Organization to increase drastically in coming years. If you’re not currently affected by cancer in some way, there’s a good chance that you eventually will be.  And though cancer once used to be considered a disease of aging, greater and greater numbers of younger people are affected by it.

The other reason I held off reading the book was my own lingering fear of the disease. To read about a topic does not mean that you will be affected by it, but too much of our talk about cancer is still fraught with fear and superstition. I had to get past that magical 5-year mark of survival before I could set aside enough of the fear to read.

If you’re not inclined to read the book, but are interested in the topic, take the shortcut.  Watch the film.