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A CHRONICLE OF CANCER

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January 2011
A CHRONICLE OF CANCER There are a handful of Indian-American physicians who are known not just for their skill in the wards. They have been recognized for their skill with words. Who are these acclaimed Dr. Authors?

Atul Gawande, Abraham Verghese, Sanjay Gupta and Sandeep Jauhar come to mind. To this list, we can add Siddhartha Mukherjee, who has been attracting raves for The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer (Scribner). Both TIME magazine and the New York Times picked it as one of the top 10 nonfiction books of 2010. Currently a staff oncologist and professor at Columbia University, Mukherjee—a Rhodes Scholar—has attended Stanford, Oxford and Harvard.

Mukherjee was initially overwhelmed by the complexity of his subject. A breakthrough came when he decided to do a “military history” of cancer, narrating the various battles fought—with varying results—to subdue a dreaded disease that has plagued humankind for 4000 years. There is also a personal, interlocking tale that chronicles Mukherjee’s evolution as a physician. He tells the stories of his patients’—and his—struggles as they grapple with cancer. Two key players in the history are Sidney Farber, the father of modern chemotherapy, and Mary Lasker, an activist and philanthropist who joined forces with Farber to help launch the “War on Cancer” in the 1970s. Indian biochemist Yellapragada Subbarao also made an important contribution to modern chemotherapy.

If uncontrolled cell growth—to put it crudely—causes cancer, where does the cure lie? “The secret to battling cancer, then, is to find means to prevent these mutations from occurring in susceptible cells, or to find means to eliminate the mutated cells without compromising normal growth,” writes Mukherjee.

That, needless to say, remains an immense challenge. So the war continues.

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