Cancer has always been with us. Our first written records of cases date from ancient Egypt, and physicians in each era have struggled to understand and treat the disease. The new documentary series, Cancer: The Emperor of All Maladies, traces this history, telling the stories of men and women who have fought the disease, and doctors and scientists who have sought to treat, and hoped to cure it.
Produced by Ken Burns and directed by Barak Goodman, it’s a very personal project for Burns, whose mother died of cancer when he was only 11 years old. The series is based on the book The Emperor of All Maladies by Dr. Siddhartha Mukherjee, who consulted on the series and appears on-screen as an expert.
It’s a remarkable look at something that has touched each person’s life in some way. It states that 1 in 2 men and 1 in 2 women will be diagnosed with some sort of cancer at some point in their lives. 600,000 people die each year. What makes it most difficult is the fact that cancer is not one disease, but many, and presents differently in each patient.
The first episode, “Magic Bullets” focused on the history of cancer, and the work that was done in the ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s when the disease was just starting to be understood and new treatments were being developed. It told the story of the scientific efforts to fight childhood leukemia, and the public struggle to make fighting cancer a national priority.
The second episode, “The Blind Men and the Elephant,” takes us through the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s as the causes of cancer came to be better understood and targeted therapies to treat it developed. We learn about the three competing theories of cancer’s causation–viruses, genetics and environmental factors–and how scientists discovered that all were correct and needed to be dealt with.
The third episode, “Finding an Achilles Heel,” talks about progress since the year 2000 and how most targeted therapies failed, but new ways were discovered to make the body’s own immune system fight cancer.
Each episode takes a scholarly approach to the science, but also tells the personal stories of patients as they go through therapies, some experimental. We follow them as they either survive the disease, or succumb to it. Here is where the series is most emotionally affecting. Far from being depressing, these stories are hopeful, even when the ultimate outcome is a negative one.
Cancer: The Emperor of All Maladies is a comprehensive look at these diseases. The science is presented in an understandable way, and the case studies are life affirming. It’s a fascinating look at a subject that affects all of us.
Cancer: The Emperor of All Maladies debuted Monday, March 30 at 9 p.m. on KIXE Channel 9, with the second and third episodes airing 9 p.m. Mon., April 6 and Mon., April 13.
Chad Grayson has been a gas station attendant, sold video games over the phone, and even was the person who cuts the mold off the cheese in the cheese factory, but spent most of his career as a middle school Language Arts and History teacher. He is now a full-time stay at home dad and writer. You can find him on twitter at @chadgrayson and on his blog at cegrayson.wordpress.com.