You should also check out my interview with Anisha Nagarajan of Outsourced. She gave a great e-mail interview, and maybe you will be convinced to give Outsourced a chance. It's really funny, I promise! And the characters are likable and entertaining.
If you read one book about the history of cancer and cancer treatment this year, it should be The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer, by Siddhartha Mukherjee. Although it came out the same year as The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (another book you really should read), they're very different books.
The Emperor of All Maladies purportedly "reads like a literary thriller with cancer as the protagonist," but that's hooey. Cancer is very clearly the antagonist in this book, as it is in our lives, but the book jacket is right about one thing: this book really is thrilling. Once it gets going, it's hard to put down because you want to know what happens next. Mukherjee takes us all the way back to the time of Atossa, a Persian queen who had her breast cancer cut out, disputing the notion that cancer is a "modern" disease. It's been around for centuries; we just didn't know what it was until recently. He leads us down the path of scientific discovery, as theories are put forth and evaluated—at one point, a scientist trying to provide corroborating evidence for the prevailing theory accidentally disproves it, to his dismay—and technology and innovative thinking allows us to better understand the disease. And then how do we treat it? In ancient times, it was the one disease they had no cure for. How did we get from that to chemotherapy? Mukherjee tells you.
Among the numerous things Mukherjee does well, the most important is the same thing that Simon Singh does in Big Bang: he makes scientific discovery exciting. Rather than throwing a medley of scientific terms at the reader, he humanizes all the players, making these scientists more than names, and he carefully explains the logic and thought process behind the experiments, placing them in their proper context. One of the most fascinating aspects of the book (and I think this was true of Big Bang too) is the way it highlights how frickin' hard it is to change the popular way of thinking. For instance, that smoking causes lung cancer seems patently obvious today, but when the idea was first floated about, it was thought to be absurd because everyone smoked. It was likened to saying nylon stockings caused cancer. It took years and years of research and observational studies to finally convince people. There's a particularly great scene where one doctor is going through the numbers and they're so damning he quits smoking himself.
Besides all the awesome science, the book is an eye-opening history of twentieth-century public health. Why do we have all these cancer foundations now? How did they get started? Did you know that it took what was essentially a publicity stunt to even let people know cancer was an issue? Then there's the whole era where "cancer" is a taboo topic. The advent of patient advocacy. The AIDS epidemic and its effect on cancer awareness and vice-versa.
Throughout all this, Mukherjee sprinkles in stories of his own patients. Delivering the news. Giving them treatment. Watching them die. Seeing them live. It is a book full of malignant cells, but it's the people who are important. It contains everything you ever wanted to know about cancer but were afraid to ask. It's a story about a country, a planet, a species attempting to understand a terrible disease and eradicate it. It's an impressive, fantastic text that I think will be considered definitive for years to come, and it doesn't require an advanced degree to understand. Honestly, I wish I had been able to write this when the book was more fresh in my mind because then I could have more properly gushed. Read this book.