When The Empire Strikes Back: A Biography of Cancer and Our Battles Against It

A couple of years ago, I read what was easily the best work of nonfiction that I had ever read. As I am an avid consumer of nonfiction books and documentaries, that statement alone should speak for itself. Within a few pages of reading Siddhartha Mukherjee’s The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer, I was hooked. As a student interested in cancer research, I was already deeply entrenched in the subject matter, but Dr. Mukherjee’s graceful prose, his attention to both the historical and modern implications of cancer, and his treatment of the patients, physicians, researchers, and activists waging battle against this ancient scourge were absolutely riveting. As the subtitle suggests, the book is an odd kind of biography, the “biography of cancer,” tracing both its natural history and the intertwined biographies of the men and women attempting to conquer it from ancient times to the present day. I was thrilled to learn this spring that the renowned documentarian Ken Burns would be producing a film directed by Barak Goodman based on the book for PBS. The documentary,Cancer: The Emperor of All Maladies, brings the book to life, putting faces to names and giving patients a chance to tell their chapter in the biography of cancer in their own words. To anyone interested in cancer or whose life or that of a loved one has been touched by cancer (which is to say, everyone), I highly recommend reading the book and watching the documentary.

The film is available to stream through PBS and Netflix.


Peer edited by Laura Taylor