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Four Popular Science Books on Cancer Biology

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Humanity has lived with, and died from, cancer for thousands of years. Despite decades of research and the continual search for a cure, there is no “one size fits all” solution for cancer.

Cancer is not a single disease, but many diseases. No two tumors are the same. Even the individual cells that make up a single tumor differ in their genetic mutations, growth rate, and sensitivity to treatment. But all tumors fall under the ubiquitous umbrella of “cancer” because they share a common phenomenon – abnormal cell growth. In a normal cell, a precise system of checks and balances controls when the cell proliferates, and when it dies. In a cancerous cell, this system malfunctions, driving the cell to divide indefinitely.

These four books explore the history and biology of cancer, the victories and defeats that led to the current state of treatment, and the life-changing consequences of diagnosis. In different ways, each book performs an autopsy of cancer in our society, a metaphorical dissection to reveal the core of a disease both fascinating and terrifying – one that we seek to understand and to destroy. So gripping they read like novels, these books invite the reader on a bittersweet journey through sickness and health, pain and hope, immortal cells and mortality.

Image courtesy National Cancer Institute/St. Jude Children's Research Hospital/Suresh Marada

The Emperor of All Maladies

From the Persian queen, Atossa, whose Greek slave cut away her breast cancer in the first recorded mastectomy, to the 19th-century cancer patients subject to aggressive and mutilating surgeries, to author Siddhartha Mukherjee’s own leukemia patient, Cora: this is a book about human resilience. Mukherjee recounts centuries of discoveries and setbacks – tracing the history of cancer from its first documented appearance in 2500 B.C., to the establishment of the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston and the rise of modern cancer research. An oncologist himself, Mukherjee precisely explains the cellular biology and genetics of cancer, while showcasing its larger metaphorical, medical, and political significance. Impeccably written, this book reads like a thriller, with cancer as the protagonist. Time becomes fluid as Mukherjee journeys through the past, present, and future, capturing, in a little over 400 pages, the essence of the beast that is cancer, the “emperor of all maladies” itself. 

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The Philadelphia Chromosome

Over 100 years ago, Nobel Laureate Paul Ehrlich championed the idea of the “magic bullet”: that we can develop compounds to specifically target disease-causing agents. In the early 2000’s, the cancer research field gained its own magic bullet with the approval of a drug called Gleevec for the treatment of a lethal blood cancer, Chronic Myeloid Leukemia (CML). Gleevec offered something unprecedented for many CML patients: a cure. Unlike chemotherapy and radiation, which non-selectively kill rapidly dividing cells, Gleevec targets one specific malfunctioning protein within CML cells. The discovery of Gleevec brought forth a new era in cancer research, one grounded in the rational design of drugs to target specific cancer-causing genes, known as “oncogenes”. Science journalist, Jessica Wapner, recounts the decades of research behind the development of Gleevec. She lucidly explains the science, while illustrating the challenges of cancer drug discovery both in the laboratory and the clinic. This book provides a fascinating glimpse into cancer biology, drug discovery, and the researchers, doctors, and patients who contributed to the development of a life-saving drug.

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The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

In 1951, while Henrietta Lacks was undergoing radiation therapy for cervical cancer, her doctor cut a sample from her tumor and gave it to Dr. George Gey, the head of tissue culture research at Johns Hopkins University. Henrietta died that same year at the age of 31, but her cancer lived on. In the Gey lab, contained in vials labeled as “HeLa”, the cervical cancer cells isolated from Henrietta’s tumor were reproducing an entire generation every 24 hours, and they never stopped. HeLa cells became the world’s first immortal human cell line and transformed medical research, paving the way for advances in cancer biology, drug development, cloning, and more. However, in stark contrast to this beacon of scientific achievement, stands the life and death of Henrietta Lacks, a poor tobacco farmer who didn’t consent to the removal of her cells. Skloot eloquently narrates the lives of the Lacks family in the aftermath of HeLa cells, probing the intersection of race, law, ethics, and medicine.

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S. Lochlann Jain explores the personal and societal impacts of cancer through the lens of an anthropologist, and that of a patient. What does it mean to live under the weight of prognosis, like an incomplete statistic – dead or alive? She uncovers the paradoxes inherent in a for-profit health system, and in a society that seeks to cure cancer but pollutes the environment with carcinogens. Jain also examines the role of language and bias in shaping the cancer experience. For example, she discusses the rhetoric of “survivorship” and explores how cancer can be gendered – the pressure to hide disease with makeup and wigs, why breast cancer awareness is colored pink. Through exemplary scholarship, dry wit, and moving personal accounts, Jain achieves a poetic and jarring account of cancer as a shared human and cultural experience. 

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Benika is a PhD student at Harvard University studying cancer biology and drug discovery. She loves hiking, dragon boat, playing piano, reading, and writing (especially writing about science!).

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