Siddhartha Mukherjee Wants People To Think Differently About Cancer. Here’s How.

The author of cancer history The Emperor of all Maladies is bringing his message of hope to a PBS film based on his book.

Siddhartha Mukherjee Wants People To Think Differently About Cancer. Here’s How.
From doc(tor) to doc(umentary): Siddhartha Mukherjee wants to help people think about cancer differently. [Photo: Rene & Radka]

Cancer is a difficult topic, but Siddhartha Mukherjee’s 2010 book, The Emperor of All Maladies, was such a compelling look at the history and future of the disease that it turned into a critical hit and unexpected best seller (as well as the winner of the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction). Now Maladies is being turned into a three-part, six-hour documentary that will air on PBS starting March 30. Directed by Barak Goodman (Scottsboro: An American Tragedy) and executive produced by Ken Burns, the film has an ambitious goal: to shift the popular conversation around cancer by emphasizing the impressive progress that scientists are making in both understanding and treating it. “Most people still haven’t fully swallowed the changes that life sciences have brought about in our lives,” Mukherjee says. “The interaction of basic and applied science has had a transformative effect.” Mukherjee, a professor at Columbia University’s Herbert Irving Comprehensive Cancer Center and a practicing oncologist, explains how he’s getting people to change the way they think about this under-discussed subject.

Dynamic duo: Mukherjee with Ken Burns, who is executive producing the PBS filmPhoto: Stephanie Berger, courtesy of PBS

Make it personal

Patients’ experiences drive Maladies’ narrative both on the page and on screen. “Throughout the book, I tried to intersperse real-life stories with vast scientific breakthroughs or failures,” says Mukherjee. “Ken and Barak and I agreed that the film—although it’s a history—also needed to follow people in real time to show how the abstract world of knowledge converted into the real world of human patients. We wanted to convey the excitement: This is science brought to life. The patients’ stories show how we’re seeing the war play out in real life, in real terms.”

Broaden your view

To reach a wide audience, Mukherjee realized he needed an inviting approach. As a stem-cell biologist who spends most of his time in a laboratory, he knew a lot about cancer at the micro level, but the issue was how to pull in lay readers. “I had to take a step back and ask, ‘Where are we in this landscape?’ ” he says. “To answer that question, I had to take a historical approach. History is the tool that allows us to understand the future from the past. That was the genesis of the book. Although there are 4,000 books on the history of the Civil War, nobody had written a book on the history of cancer.”

Ask the right questions

An avid reader who considered majoring in philosophy before turning his focus to medicine, Mukherjee believes his broad education helped him frame the book. “My scientific training taught me how to ask questions in the laboratory,” he says. “But it’s outside the lab where you have to figure out whether the questions are important or not. The scientific and humanistic approaches have to be combined in some way—so you can be extremely incisive on one hand but also know that the questions you’re asking are valuable enough to carry real thinking.”

Celebrate progress

Mukherjee says that he and the filmmakers were careful not to put an overly optimistic spin on our decades-long war on cancer. But it’s impossible to deny that real progress is being made—and quickly. “We’re making discoveries by the day that are being translated into new therapies,” he says. “Hope is not an artifice in the film. There’s a sober quality to it, because every inch that’s been gained was gained on the backs of thousands of patients. But inches have translated into feet, feet into territories, and the progress has been remarkable.”