Emperor of All Maladies

In 1899, a Buffalo surgeon, Roswell Park, predicted that cancer would someday overtake smallpox, typhoid fever, and tuberculosis as the leading cause of death. Cancer, at the time, was the seventh leading cause of death.

Cancer and diet from NIH

Cancer and diet from NIH (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Within a decade, typhoid fever was declining.

By 1926, cancer had edged out tuberculosis, becoming the second leading cause of death, just behind heart disease, and that is where it stands today.

Smallpox disappeared in America in 1949.

The last case of polio acquired in the US – the polio epidemic appeared and was conquered after Park’s prediction – was in 1979.

Why a Biography of Cancer?

Dr. Siddhartha Mukherjee is a former Rhodes Scholar, a cancer physician, researcher, and assistant professor of medicine at Columbia University.

He decided that to understand the disease he had chosen to make his career, he needed a comprehensive history of cancer.

His research turned into the Pulitzer-prize-winning book, The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer.

What he found was both sobering and encouraging.

Between 1970 and 1994 (the War on Cancer was declared in 1971), cancer mortality had increased slightly. It then plateaued for ten years.

But, underneath this disturbing fact, there were countervailing forces that offered a more optimistic view.

Between 1970 and 1994, colon cancer deaths had fallen by 30 percent.

Cervical and uterine cancer deaths were down 20 percent.  The screening tools of colonoscopy and Pap smears seemed to explain these results.

Most children’s cancer deaths were down in 1994. They have declined every year between 1975 and 2008.

Deaths from Hodgkin’s disease and testicular cancer were down.

Lung cancer is what offset all these gains, especially for women, whose increased lung cancer rates trailed by twenty years the rise in smoking among women.

By this time, researchers agreed, they were not winning the war on cancer, but they were making progress and it was a lot harder than anyone thought.

What Is the Current Status?

Mukherjee’s book brings you up-to-date on the latest research into cancer drugs, from vaccines to molecular and gene studies, the pick-and-shovel work that precedes breakthroughs.

But, it may also be informative to turn to a report on the results of these cancer research and drug development efforts.

A recent report from the National Cancer Institute (NCI), which covers 1975-2008, shows trends continuing from the 1994 report that Mukherjee described.

Prostate, colon and stomach cancer incidents and death rates decreased for men from 1999 to 2008.

But, pancreas, liver and melanoma incidents and death rates increased.

Breast cancer incidents increased from 1992 through 1999, declined through 2005 and leveled off to 2008. Death rates from breast cancer have declined.

Recent declines of incidents are attributed to the discontinuation of hormone replacement therapy (HRT), which is now a known risk factor for breast cancer.

Doctors and researchers continue to emphasize the importance of quitting smoking as a lifestyle choice.

This report also shows a new emphasis on other lifestyle choices.

Research about the importance of a healthy weight and regular exercise has made its way into this, the National Cancer Institute’s Annual Report to the Nation on the Status of Cancer, posted on its site March 28, 2012.

Their findings are based on a review of 7,000 scientific articles. They conclude that excess weight is a risk factor for cancers ranging from colon, to kidney, to pancreatic and post-menopausal breast cancer and possibly leukemia.

They recommend that children get an hour of exercise a day and adults two-and-a-half hours a week.

An apple a day is looking pretty good, right now, and a walk around the block or down to the nearest park three times a week could cheer you in more ways than you imagined.

Click here to order the book discussed in this post, The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer, by Siddhartha Mukherjee.

Did you know weight and exercise had such an effect on your risk for cancer?

Did you know that, while the war on cancer is not won, there are bright spots?

Did you know breast cancer rates are going down?


To you and teaching your grandchildren the good habits that will guard their health for a lifetime.

Click here to order this blog on your Kindle.


Carol Covin, Granny-Guru

Click here to order our affectionate, candid book of advice for mothers and grandmothers, “Who Gets to Name Grandma: The Wisdom of Mothers and Grandmothers”



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