Demystifying cancer

Demystifying cancer

It’s a matter of pride that an India-born doctor and researcher, Dr Sidharth Mukherjee, has been awarded this year’s Pulitzer prize for general non-fiction for his debut writing venture, ‘The Emperor of all Maladies: A Biography of Cancer’. Indians’ writing talent has been recognised by many international awards in the past and the prestigious Pulitzer has been awarded to two other Indians. Other Indian doctors have also made an impact with their writing, as shown by the much-discussed work on AIDS by Dr Abraham Verghese, an American-Indian. Mukherjee’s book has already become a best-seller. The Pulitzer committee has said it has awarded the book for its “elegant enquiry, at once clinical and personal” into the history of the disease which still challenges medical science, despite many breakthroughs in treatment methods.

Mukherjee’s work is notable because it goes beyond a prosaic and scientific account of cancer and becomes an intensely human document. Diseases, especially the unconquered ones like AIDS and cancer, are the biggest tests of character and endurance and doctors who deal with them are privileged to have a rare understanding of the human condition. Sensitivity and compassion, combined with medical expertise, give them a vantage point. Mukherjee’s book is based on the personal experiences of cancer patients and survivors and gives an account of the clinical advances made till now and the research which is going on. He has said the purpose of writing the book was to demystify cancer and change the way people look at it, and hopes that if he succeeds in that, it is a bigger prize than the Pulitzer.

Our knowledge of cancer and methods of treatment have to improve much so that we can win the battle against it. In future it may even be possible to prevent it altogether. As Mukherjee hopes, his work can inspire new researchers to work in that direction. It is a narrative of tragedy but it is also about struggle and hope. We may praise him and the biography but may also wish that he can write an obituary sooner than later.

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