A Weird Book Review
How the 'Emperor of All Maladies' Is Helping Me Cope with Loss and Death
“Finishing a good book is like saying goodbye to a good friend,” as I’m sure many have said. After placing The Emperor of All Maladies by Siddhartha Mukherjee back on my bookshelf, I stared into space for a while, deeply aware of an emptiness in my stomach. During the past seven days, I have experienced the ups and downs of life exponentially magnified through reading the “biography” of cancer.
During the past seven days, I turned 25 years old, made my first cheesecake, celebrated with family and friends, went on a date with my boyfriend, celebrated our one-year anniversary, watched one of his soccer games, and tried to enjoy spring break. However, during the same past seven days, a good family friend in his eighties was hospitalized and went through surgery. He is still in the hospital with a serious pancreatic infection that can cost him his life. One of my aunts in her fifties was hospitalized waiting for a heart transplant and died after four cardiac arrests.
What I thought was going to be a peaceful break turned out to be marred by the eminence and evidence of death. As a bystander unable to alleviate the suffering of those close to me, I devoted most of my time to The Emperor of All Maladies. A book that's message can be just as numbing and uncomfortable as being useless. The message is that cancer is "us," life and death are just two sides of the same coin. Cancer cells pursue the same things healthy cells pursue. Dying is even a more certain fact than living. We can remedy life, but to what extent can we remedy death?
Nonetheless, the fight against it is as strong as ever. The book sheds light on how many individual scientists, physicians, patients, and activists illuminated, even drastically changed, the way we see life and death in cancer. The history of cancer became an allegory of life itself. Life is sometimes unexpected, chaotically organized, extremely resilient like cancer.
It is ironically befitting that the condition that resembles us most would be the hardest condition to cure. But, I do believe that that is a great part of why scientists and oncologists are so fascinated with understanding and fighting cancer. As the book puts it, looking at cancer is like staring into a mirror. Defeating cancer would be the ultimate form of control. To defeat one’s own nature appears to be one’s ultimate salvation.
But, what if our nature is what makes us successful? Look at what we have accomplished in the world. Ultimately, we have survived by employing the same tactics as cancer. We have uncontrollably moved forward against all odds. Every “treatment” to erase the human race has also produced survivors, strong men and women who lived to tell the story. Cancer survives our war efforts against it. We also survive its attacks on us.
We still survive against any other disease, condition, catastrophe, dictatorship, bad ideas, and evil that surge into this world. It does not matter if they originated on the outside or within ourselves. Sardonically, what kills us makes us stronger.
As I move forward, mourning the lives lost in my family and also in the book, one hope remains. Life is just as obnoxious and resilient as death. It springs up during adversity, it thrives even in the depths of the ocean. It reflects its inconspicuous origins until it grows larger than itself and stands with a gargantuan appetite for survival. It spreads like an infectious disease, or like hope in a cancer ward with patients lining up for a new trial of a miracle drug. Life is just one of those things. We don’t fully understand it, and we can’t really stop it.