“The Emperor of All Maladies” is a history of eureka moments and decades of despair. Mukherjee describes vividly the horrors of the radical mastectomy, which got more and more radical, until it arrived at “an extraordinarily morbid, disfiguring procedure in which surgeons removed the breast, the pectoral muscles, the axillary nodes, the chest wall and occasionally the ribs, parts of the sternum, the clavicle and the lymph nodes inside the chest.” Cancer surgeons thought, mistakenly, that each radicalization of the procedure was progress. “Pumped up with self-confidence, bristling with conceit and hypnotized by the potency of medicine, oncologists pushed their patients — and their discipline — to the brink of disaster,” Mukherjee writes. In this army, “lumpectomy” was originally a term of abuse.
For me, reading a biography of the disease is very personal: just over a year ago, my mother died of a particularly virulent form of cancer.