The Cancer Chronicles
Unlocking Medicine's Deepest Mystery
By George Johnson
(Knopf, Hardcover, 9780307595140, 304pp.)
Publication Date: August 27, 2013
Other Editions of This Title: Paperback
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When the woman he loved was diagnosed with a metastatic cancer, science writer George Johnson embarked on a journey to learn everything he could about the disease and the people who dedicate their lives to understanding and combating it. What he discovered is a revolution under way—an explosion of new ideas about what cancer really is and where it comes from. In a provocative and intellectually vibrant exploration, he takes us on an adventure through the history and recent advances of cancer research that will challenge everything you thought you knew about the disease.
Deftly excavating and illuminating decades of investigation and analysis, he reveals what we know and don’t know about cancer, showing why a cure remains such a slippery concept. We follow him as he combs through the realms of epidemiology, clinical trials, laboratory experiments, and scientific hypotheses—rooted in every discipline from evolutionary biology to game theory and physics. Cogently extracting fact from a towering canon of myth and hype, he describes tumors that evolve like alien creatures inside the body, paleo-oncologists who uncover petrified tumors clinging to the skeletons of dinosaurs and ancient human ancestors, and the surprising reversals in science’s comprehension of the causes of cancer, with the foods we eat and environmental toxins playing a lesser role. Perhaps most fascinating of all is how cancer borrows natural processes involved in the healing of a wound or the unfolding of a human embryo and turns them, jujitsu-like, against the body.
Throughout his pursuit, Johnson clarifies the human experience of cancer with elegiac grace, bearing witness to the punishing gauntlet of consultations, surgeries, targeted therapies, and other treatments. He finds compassion, solace, and community among a vast network of patients and professionals committed to the fight and wrestles to comprehend the cruel randomness cancer metes out in his own family. For anyone whose life has been affected by cancer and has found themselves asking why?, this book provides a new understanding. In good company with the works of Atul Gawande, Siddhartha Mukherjee, and Abraham Verghese, The Cancer Chronicles is endlessly surprising and as radiant in its prose as it is authoritative in its eye-opening science.
GEORGE JOHNSON writes regularly about science for The New York Times. He has also written for National Geographic, Slate, Discover, Scientific American, Wired, and The Atlantic, and his work has been included in The Best American Science Writing. A former Alicia Patterson fellow, he has received awards from PEN and the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and his books were twice finalists for the Royal Society's book prize. He is a cohost of Science Faction on bloggingheads.tv and writes the blog Fire in the Mind for Discover. He lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
“Among a small cluster of very good recent books on cancer, including The Emperor of All Maladies, by Siddhartha Mukherjee; The Philadelphia Chromosome, by Jessica Wapner; and The Truth in Small Doses, by Clifton Leaf, Johnson’s stands out as especially illuminating, forceful and, in its own quiet way, profound.”
—The New York Times Book Review
“The ideal primer for those who want to know the real story of cancer, rather than the version that is usually presented in the media.”
“Johnson’s fine work…[is] an important one.”
“Incisive…The Cancer Chronicles delivers an astute, vivid biography of perhaps the oldest, most complex disease on Earth, and a poignant account of a contemporary couple’s struggle against it.”
“A highly captivating book that meticulously explains the current scientific understanding of cancer….George Johnson has captured the curiosity and empathy that drives scientists to tackle this calamitous disease.”
—The Times Literary Supplement
“Johnson writes with imaginative flair about the whole range of the cancer experience.”
“A provocative and also a personal exploration of the myths and misunderstandings that surround this most formidable enemy to our health and well being.”
“Richly informative, unerringly balanced and undeniably compelling.”
“This elegant and insightful chronicle is at once intensely personal and meticulously studious…This is extraordinary scholarship delivered with an intimate poignancy.”
“A thorough and nuanced presentation of the state of [cancer] science, refreshing in its honest appraisal that the war is far from over.”
“It is very rare to find a writer who can weave a compelling narrative that combines the intrinsically fascinating nature of cancer with its peculiar horror. George Johnson has penetrated the arcane world of cancer biology and oncology and exposed the bewilderment and frustration felt by researchers and clinicians grappling to understand and control this pervasive disease. He makes a convincing case that the field is floundering because we are thinking about the problem the wrong way. Cancer touches every family on the planet. For those who want to gain some serious insights into the subject, this book is a great place to start.”
—Paul Davies, Principal Investigator, Center for Convergence of Physical Science and Cancer Biology
“This compact, elegant book is really three books: a memoir of a year in Cancerland, a shrewd investigation into what’s known (and not known) about this still-mysterious condition, and a gripping account of coming to terms with living in a universe that includes a deadly disease with no predictable cause. Everyone who is concerned about cancer—that is, every thinking adult—should read The Cancer Chronicles.”
—Charles C. Mann, author 1491
“The Cancer Chronicles is a rich and sweeping exploration of the history, prehistory, and future of cancer, all anchored in harrowing personal experience. Surprisingly—and especially gratifying to me as a former biologist—it is also an appreciation of cancer as a cellular strategy and a rebellion against the tyranny of the multicellular body. Completely accessible to the lay reader, this is a book for anyone whose life has been touched by cancer, which is just about everyone.”
—Barbara Ehrenreich, author, Nickel and Dimed
“George Johnson, like a science-writing alchemist, transforms his fear—fueled by his wife Nancy’s metastatic-cancer diagnosis—into gold, in the form of a well-written and thoroughly researched exploration of the current state of cancer science. Johnson journeys through labs bent on cracking cancer’s code, ferreting out its causes, its molecular eccentricities, and its treatment. His wife’s struggle with the disease serves as a constant touchstone without subsuming his sober treatment of evidence, data, and reason.”
—Bob Grant, The Scientist
“A masterpiece of clarity.” —New York Journal of Books
“A fascinating compilation of selected discoveries in cancer research…The book succeeds because Johnson’s writing conveys his passion about the science.”
—Mary L. Disis, Science