The Cancer Chronicles:
Unlocking Medicine's Deepest Mystery
by George Johnson
"We must never feel disarmed: nature is immense and conplex, but it is not impermeable to intelligence; we must circle around it, pierce and probe it, looking for the opening or making it." - Primo Levi, The Periodic Table
George Johnson opens his book, on the page preceding chapter one, with an epigraph from Reynolds Price's memoir about his own struggle with cancer that left him in a paraplegic state. I mention this because I was moved by my reading of Price's book almost two decades ago and, while it was an eloquent expression of the experience of cancer it did not, as I remember, inform me significantly about the nature of the disease itself. With The Cancer Chronicles George Johnson, a writer whose book Fire in the Mind impressed me several years ago, shares both the history and nature of the disease called Cancer and a memoir of his wife's own battle with that disease.
The history of cancer begins very far back in prehistoric times for it seems that scientists have found that the disease was already present in the age of Dinosaurs. This revelation along with others made the book both informative and interesting to read. His chronicle of the history of the science of cancer explores the realms of epidemiology. clinical trials, laboratory experiments while sharing information from evolutionary biology and other sciences. Even the economics of the Cancer research juggernaut is described -- an industry that has grown to an immense size in the search for an elusive "cure" for cancer.
Cancer the disease is at the core of the book and permeates the narrative, but the chronicles reveal what is in reality multiple different diseases. Each cancer affects different parts of the body and different groups of humans in unique ways. This is an important part of the story and represents some of the basis for many of the obstacles scientists continue to face in analyzing how to stop or prevent the disease.
Johnson capably personalizes the story with interludes where he shares his wife's struggle with Cancer. In doing this he reveals a view of the disease from the point of view of the everyday person who must deal with the practicalities of diagnoses and treatments and hospital stays. For those of us who have family or close friends who have had the experience of this disease the narrative is a moving personal story. I also appreciated the literary allusions whether explicit, like the reference to Solzhenitsyn's masterpiece Cancer Ward, or implicit. The author is eloquent both in his telling analysis of the disease and in his personal memoir; he demonstrates an ability to convey scientific concepts lucidly enough for the layman to understand. These characteristics and the fascination that the author shares for scientific discovery make this a great book full of insights into the deep mysteries of some of the most complex areas of modern medicine.
The Cancer Chronicles by George Johnson. Alfred A. Knopf, 2013.