Book Review : The Emperor of All Maladies

Book Review : The Emperor of All Maladies
The Emperor of All Maladies
The Emperor of All Maladies, A Biography of Cancer By Siddhartha Mukherjee

Reading this book was a relationship… four hundred and seventy pages on the history of cancer in the western world (plus glossary and references). The subtitle is very appropriate – this is a biography of cancer. But a biography from the western medicine view of cancer.

If you are interested in other attempts to treat cancer outside of chemotherapy, radiation and surgery then you will be disappointed. But if you are interested in these three main conventional treatments and how they came to be the standard therapy for cancer, then this is the book for you.

Insights including the personality of the researchers, the location of their labs, their relationships to each other—it’s all here—in amazingly detailed story telling.

I appreciated the historical accounts of cancer, how the three treatment modalities came to be developed and the recent account of the discovery of the HER2+ targeted therapy Herceptin.

But I must admit, I found the detail overwhelming at times and with each new chapter I kept hoping for a glimpse outside of the conventional cancer treatment world, such as alternative therapies or nutrition therapies but this never came. It is not surprising really, as the adage goes, write about what you know, and Dr. Siddhartha Mukherjee, being a conventionally-trained cancer physician and researcher, did a great job of revealing the inner workings of his cancer research world to people outside of.

I’m not sure what value there is in this book for me or my work. It has advanced my understanding of cancer, at least in the initial reading, but with so much information I’m not sure I have internalized much. I will keep the book as a reference whenever I need to understand something in more detail because his explanations were very well done. But, I can’t see it changing the way I practice or live my day-to-day experience as a cancer survivor.

Bottom Line:

The Emperor of All Maladies, A Biography of Cancer was an interesting read and helpful to understand the history of cancer and conventional treatments. But it didn’t get me fired up or inspired to make changes the way other cancer related books have. If you’re a history buff then you will enjoy this book. If you’re looking for ideas on how to live with cancer or reduce your risks of cancer, keep looking because this book isn’t for you.

If you would like to support my blog by purchasing this book through my amazon associate link, then please use one of these links and thank you for your support! or

Additional Notes:

This book was very successful and has inspired a film entitled The Emperor of All Maladies: A Film by Barak Goodman. The film is a three-part, six-hour documentary series. It will air on PBS stations on March 30, 31 and April 1 from 9-11 p.m. EDT (check local listings).

And…inspired by the film (which is inspired by the book) there is a 10-Story Companion Radio Series called “LIVING CANCER” on NPR radio programs, Morning Edition and All Things Considered, heard on public radio stations across the U.S.


To listen to the NPR LIVING CANCER radio broadcast use this link.

To watch the documentary film Ken Burns Presents: Cancer: The Emperor of All Maladies A Film by Barak Goodman on PBS use this link. Note – the PBS link is not available in all regions.