Mukherjee: How to Tame the “Emperor” of All Maladies

Thursday, Oct. 3, 11:30 am

Siddhartha Mukherjee, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer,” spoke to the audience via Skype, but his words had such compelling edge and urgency that it was as if he was on stage.

Siddhartha Mukherjee
Siddhartha Mukherjee

On why he wrote the book, which has been described as a “biography” of cancer: “I thought, here we are running this massive campaign, yet we lacked a story telling us, what was this all about? Where are we? Are we in the beginning, the middle, the end? I wrote it for myself, to give us a public roadmap.”

After interviewer Steve Clemons noted that Richard Nixon was the first president to launch a “war on cancer,” the author responded tartly: “As you know, Nixon declared war on many things.”

On the concept of treating cancer as war: “It’s like declaring war on a puzzle. You don’t declare war on a puzzle, you try to solve it….We have learned an enormous amount. We now realize that cancer is not just one disease, but many diseases under the genetic microscope. We now know what the territory looks like. How do we use this information with the somewhat effective therapies that we now have?

More: “Puzzles don’t get solved without going through the middle. We’re now in the middle. We need the scientific energy to solve the next set of questions about this puzzle.”

On value of “big data” research: “I’m not so interested in big data. Small experiments can generate huge results. An apple falling from a tree can be much more valuable than millions of pixels on a computer screen….It’s how to take that data, which is very complex and convert it into something usable.”

Also: “It is not clear to me that the data revolution is the only solution to the problem. You don’t need big data to prove that smoking is a big problem around the world today. That’s not a data problem, it’s a behavioral issue…Let’s not confuse big with smart.”

Mukherlee, on working with noted filmmaker Ken Burns for an upcoming PBS documentary based on his book: “The object is to start a national conversation about cancer and the relationship between society, research and science….We’re trying to tell stories. I like to think of scientists as story-tellers in this process. It is our story, one effects each of our lives. It’s really a fundamentally American story.”

He ended with this admonition: “My last message is, don’t let anyone tell you that this is someone else’s problem. It’s our problem.”

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