This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Emperor of All Maladies" by Siddhartha Mukherjee. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.
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Can cancer be a social issue? What are the social implications of treating cancer?
According to Siddhartha Mukherjee, the author of The Emperor of All Maladies, battling cancer isn’t just an interesting puzzle to solve—it is about helping people. We mustn’t focus so much on the disease that we lose sight of the people.
Read about the social aspects of fighting cancer.
Considering the Person, Not Just the Disease
In the 1950s, an English physician named Cecily Saunders introduced the idea of palliative medicine to cancer treatment: end-of-life care designed to preserve comfort and dignity, rather than cure the disease at any cost.
Mukherjee says that, despite its name, palliative medicine was more of a social advancement than a medical one. Many doctors had refused to even consider palliative care because it felt like admitting defeat; furthermore, many people fought for the slightest chance that their loved ones could be healed, no matter the cost or the impact on the patient. However, Saunders argued that subjecting patients to painful and nauseating treatments with little hope of curing them did more harm than good—that there came a time when doctors and loved ones should let the patient stop suffering and die peacefully.
Saunders opened the world’s first modern hospice center in England in 1967. In 1974, the first American hospice opened at Yale-New Haven Hospital. By the early 1980s, hospice centers based on Saunders’s model could be found all over the world.
The Social Aspects of the Fight Against Cancer
Mukherjee observes that battling cancer is as much a social matter as a medical one. Funding cancer research requires people to first acknowledge that cancer exists (an unpleasant topic that many prefer to ignore), and then recognize that doctors and researchers need vast amounts of funding and resources to combat it.
Furthermore, preventing cancer often requires us to change our lifestyles and laws: For example, giving up alcohol (a personal change) and carefully regulating pesticides (a legal change) both help reduce the risk of cancer. People are often reluctant to make the necessary changes, or even to believe that they are necessary. Therefore, alongside the scientific and technological advances in cancer research, Mukherjee describes a series of social advances (and setbacks) that helped shape the fight against cancer over the years.
(Shortform note: In Creativity, Inc., Ed Catmull and Amy Wallace argue that people often resist change because they’re afraid to acknowledge that something’s wrong in the first place. They offer three tips for alleviating that fear of change: 1. Discuss why change is necessary. 2. Assess the current situation and its problems honestly. 3. Embrace the fact that the change may not go smoothly at first, and accept that there will be mistakes.)
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Here's what you'll find in our full The Emperor of All Maladies summary :
- An overview and rough timeline of the fight against cancer
- A look into the more technical aspects of cancer and cancer treatment
- The social aspects of the fight against cancer