Siddhartha Mukherjee: ‘A positive attitude does not cure cancer, any more than a negative one causes it’

A little old, but worth a read from The Guardian:

Siddhartha-Mukherjee-Dece-007It is the convention of awards-ceremony etiquette for the winner to perform a convincing impression of bashful disbelief. The man I meet just hours before he was awarded the Guardian First Book award last Thursday has just stepped off a flight from New York, however, only an hour ago, and his bearing doesn't say “What, little old me? Wow!” so much as “So what time is it here anyway?” In fact, he conveys that precise blend of exhaustion, distraction and authority instantly recognisable from any hospital ward in the world. This should come as no surprise, for he is a senior oncologist – assistant professor of medicine at Columbia University, and staff cancer physician at Columbia University Medical Centre. And yet, until we met it had seemed scarcely possible that the author of The Emperor of All Maladies could really be an actual doctor and not a writer, so exquisitely is his book crafted and paced.

Published a year ago, the Emperor of All Maladies has won the Pulitzer prize for non-fiction, been shortlisted for the National Book Critics Circle award, and named one of the Top 10 Books of the Year by the New York Times, Time magazine and Oprah Winfrey; the sort of success that soars beyond the wildest heights of literary ambition into the stratosphere of fantasy. Yet when Siddhartha Mukherjee talks about his book, it is with a striking air of disinterested detachment. At first I put it down to jet lag. Then I think, no, of course, the poor man must just be so accustomed by now to the carousel of plaudits and prizes and media demands, he has reached the glaze of autopilot. Soon, though, I realise that is not it either. Mukherjee's impression of reluctant ownership of his own success is, I suspect, down to a profound sense of personal insignificance in the face of his subject's enormity. Mukherjee decided to write a history of cancer when a terminally ill patient asked him a simple question: could he explain exactly “what it is I'm battling?” But as Mukherjee immersed himself in research, the disease quickly began to assume the characteristics of a personality, and so cancer's historian became its biographer. He takes us from the earliest records of cancer in 2,500BC, through medieval theories of black bile and bloodletting, on to the surgical butchery of 19th-century mastectomies, performed with no anaesthetic or penicillin but reckless confidence, before reaching the rollercoaster of 20th-century medical politics, which swung between indifference, euphoria and despair, each wild lurch owing more to socio-economic fashion than to anything resembling solid science.

More here.