The Emperor of All Maladies | Siddhartha Mukherjee

Summary of: The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer
By: Siddhartha Mukherjee


Welcome to the summary of ‘The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer’ by Siddhartha Mukherjee. This book unveils a captivating and informative journey exploring the history, causes, and treatments of cancer. Through this summary, you will discover the evolution of cancer theories, from the ancient concept of black bile to modern cellular theory, and gain insights into the various factors that can induce the development of cancerous cells. The book also highlights historical milestones in cancer therapies, including the roles of surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation, as well as the groundbreaking efforts of pioneers in cancer research such as Sidney Farber and Mary Lasker.

The Evolution of Cancer Theories

Theories on cancer causing agents have evolved throughout history. Hippocrates believed an imbalance of the body’s four fluids led to illnesses and personality problems. The first known theory of cancer, developed by Galen in CE 160, attributed the disease to an entrapment of black bile. However, autopsy results refuted this theory. Scientists then turned to external agents like miasmas, worms, fungal spores, and protozoa as possible causes of cancer until the 1926 Nobel Prize winner Johannes Fibiger was proven wrong for believing roundworms caused stomach cancer. Today, cancer is understood as a complex disease with various causes.

The Origin and Danger of Cancer Cells

Rudolf Virchow’s cellular theory revolutionized the way we understand cancer. He discovered that cancer tissue is composed of our own cells and explained that cancer cells are unique in their ability to replicate endlessly and never age or self-destruct. Cancer cells have mutated growth genes, and they replicate without any signal, making them indestructible enemies. Our understanding of cancer today acknowledges that it arises from within our bodies, but external factors can also induce it.

The Deadly Reality of Chimney Sweeping

In Georgian England, young boys who worked as chimney sweeps were dying from scrotal cancer caused by soot. Percival Pott hypothesized that everyday substances like soot, asbestos, heavy metals, and benzene can induce cancer by altering DNA and disrupting the immune system. Mutagens can alter the genes of a normal cell, transforming it into a cancer cell that multiplies uncontrollably. Certain toxins found in heavy metals and benzene can also disrupt the immune system, allowing malignant cells to spread. While we need to be aware of these chemicals, cancer can also arise from infections.

The Link Between Infections and Cancer

Infections can lead to cancer in humans in two ways: indirectly by causing chronic inflammation that increases cancer risk, or directly by altering a cell’s DNA. This connection was first discovered in chickens by virologist Peyton Rous when he found that tumors could be transmitted through a virus. However, most cancers do not arise from infections, so there’s no need to worry about getting cancer from a handshake.

Factors that Increase Your Risk of Cancer

The risk of cancer can increase with exposure to radiation, the presence of specific genes, and the body’s own hormones acting as growth signals. Radiation can damage DNA, potentially leading to mutations and cancer. Mutated genes, such as BRCA1, can prevent the repair of damaged DNA. Additionally, the presence of estrogen can increase the growth rate of cancerous cells. These three factors can combine to cause cancer. However, they can also be used to fight the disease. In the past, cancer therapy meant drastic surgery and inflexible procedures. However, scientific breakthroughs have led to unique treatments that work with the body’s natural defenses.

Want to read the full book summary?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Fill out this field
Fill out this field
Please enter a valid email address.
You need to agree with the terms to proceed