Recently dear hubby and I sat down to watch the PBS documentary – Ken Burns Presents, Cancer: The Emperor of All Maladies, a film by Barak Goodman, based on the 2010 Pulitzer-Prize winning book, The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer, by Siddhartha Mukherjee. I read the book a couple of years ago and thought it was very good, though I did have to take many breaks and read and re-read sections at times. It took me a really long time to get through it. I’ve become a very slow reader and yes, I do attribute this in part to my cancer treatment.
I had been looking forward to watching this PBS documentary ever since I heard about it. I am one of those people who does watch TV shows and movies about cancer. I read all I can about cancer too. However, I totally understand why some opt out of watching or reading about cancer anything.
It turns out, I was traveling while it aired therefore my viewing was after the fact; hence, this review is as well.
If I were to summarize this documentary in a sentence or two, it would be that it’s a conglomerate of stories. It is the combined stories of cancer researchers, physicians, politicians, advocates, patients, philanthropists and of course, cancer itself.
Finding answers to cancer requires us to closely look at, listen to and analyze all the various cancer angle stories. They all matter. They always do.
Episode one of the documentary, “Magic Bullets,” was mesmerizing. While watching the condensed cancer history lesson, which focused heavily on the work of Dr. Sidney Farber, I couldn’t help but think about all the researchers who have worked so incredibly hard to make painstakingly slow progress, and of course how patients have suffered through brutal cancer treatments. It was fascinating to realize that cancer has been around as long as mankind and how in the beginning there was no treatment at all. No treatment at all.
Can you imagine?
Episode one began by calling cancer a world-wide scourge; a disease also referred to as The King of Terrors, A Hidden Assassin and most recently, The Emperor of All Maladies.
The shunning of cancer patients, which went on for years largely due to that fear and an incomplete understanding of cancer, was well depicted in this episode.
Sadly, even today shunning still happens in parts of the world. Cancer and shame do still go together, even in our modern society and yes, I would venture to say, even in the US to some degree.
Episode one was an emotional segment to watch because of the intense focus on children enduring childhood leukemia and unimaginable harsh treatments on their fragile bodies. Some of the early experimental leukemia treatments must have been an absolute nightmare for parents to witness.
Episode one also focused on the philanthropy work of Mary Lasker. It takes a lot of effort, a lot of money and a lot of different people working in different capacities to bring about even slow progress. This is an important reminder to us all, or at least it was to me, to do what we can, no matter how small or insignificant what we do seems.
Episode two was titled, “The Blind Men & the Elephant,” and was the hardest part for me to watch because much of it focused on breast cancer. It opened with the story of Nixon’s War on Cancer.
Watching the segment about the once predominantly accepted and over-utilized treatment for breast cancer, the Halsted radical mastectomy, was chilling. Learning more about the controversy surrounding how the lumpectomy evolved as an accepted alternative treatment was eye-opening and again, made me grateful for the perseverance of Dr. Bernard Fisher and others who dared to question the status quo and activists such as Rose Kushner as well.
Dr. Susan Love’s comments about a woman with breast cancer going into surgery not knowing whether or not she would come out with her breast(s) or not were stunning. It’s hard to even imagine such a thing.
It is heart breaking to think about the mutilation women have endured and granted, though to a lesser extent, still do.
Episode two also focused on the rise of three different theories about what causes carcinogenesis, or abnormal cell growth – viruses, chemicals in the environment and gene mutations. There was lots of debate at the time, but not much cohesiveness or working together it seems. It turns out, all theories play a role.
Episode three, “Finding the Achilles Heel,” was another information-packed two hours. This episode highlighted (among other things) the Human Genome Project and the subsequent development of the Cancer Genome Atlas as turning points for cancer researchers.
We now know a whole lot more about cancer, but at the same time, the more we know the more complex and the more elusive cancer seems to become.
As dear hubby remarked to me while we were watching, “It’s almost like cancer is an alien being inside the human body that we keep trying to kill, but it keeps mutating. It keeps outsmarting us, always staying one step ahead.”
Episode three ended with an optimistic focus on cancer immunotherapy. Did it end too optimistically? Perhaps.
However, it’s pretty tough to not end such a production on a note of optimism. We all want to believe that researchers will never give up. We all want to believe we can catch up to the monster that is cancer. We all want to believe that one day we will slay the beast.
It’s daunting even attempting to write a review on a comprehensive six-hour documentary of this magnitude. I attempted to highlight a few parts that stood out for me, but I know fully well I didn’t do it justice. It’s not really even possible in a relatively brief blog post such as this.
Watching this documentary as a person who has personally faced cancer humbled me. For many reasons, watching was an emotionally draining experience for me and I know it was for dear hubby too. His body language when we watch this kind of thing is always quite telling.
Ultimately, what I felt and continue to feel after watching this documentary is a deep sense of gratitude.
I feel a deep sense of gratitude to physicians, researchers, and patients who have worked so hard and endured so much. Their efforts and tenacity have made my cancer experience easier. Not easy, but easier.
I am grateful that others have cared and still care. I am grateful patients before me have shared their stories, tried new therapies and paved the way for those like me. Mostly, I am grateful that so many others have not and do not give up.
This film exemplifies perfectly that as always, answers will only come through research. We need to step up our cancer research efforts, not make cuts.
Was this film perfect?
Of course not. I was disappointed it did not tackle the complexities of survivorship adequately, other than this stunningly accurate quote from Barbara Bradfield:
Cancer’s a funny thing because once you have it – it sits like a little monkey on your shoulder – it never goes away. It’s been 20 years and it’s still part of my psyche and it changes who you are. There’s a little element of fear that never goes away.
This might be my favorite quote in the entire documentary because it’s true. So very true.
I also felt the nurses’ stories were left out.
Overall, I felt this documentary was well done, perhaps mainly because it didn’t sugar-coat cancer.
What it certainly did accomplish was to generate lots of interest, many discussions and countless reviews far superior to this one. All good things.
If you haven’t watched it yet, I recommend that you do. If you are up to it of course. You can watch any or all of the episodes right here or click on the image below.
It seems fitting to end my review the same way the documentary ended, with a quote by Siddhartha Mukherjee:
The cancer cell is evolving, and we are evolving with it.
Let’s hope we can evolve faster.
Did you watch this documentary and if so, what did you think of it and was it hard for you to watch?
If you watched and read the book as well, which did you prefer?
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