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Know your enemy!
am 31. Mai 2016
The author of this excellent book thinks in monarchic terms. Cancer is the 'emperor' of maladies. The historical starting point of the story is Queen Atossa, whose breast cancer also provides the theme for the book's summary, a fast forward through the history of medical progress. A philosophical metaphor is provided by the great Red Queen: we need to run fast just to stay where we are. Progress requires running twice as fast.
Ideology tends to corrupt. How does that insight relate to cancer? Wars against cancer have been waged with big guns, but the first law of war was ignored for a long time: know your enemy.
Who wants to read a 'biography of cancer '? Don't we all know enough about it, be it by own direct experience, or by watching relatives and friends in their struggles? I didn't feel much interested when this book became a non-fiction bestseller and award winner a few years ago. Something changed my mind, and I am glad. It is very good.
There is a certain standard style in American non fiction, that sometimes turns me off. The writers must all have gone through the same school of 'creative writing'. Subjects must be cut down into digestible pieces, the reader must be amused by anecdotes, almost at all cost. All this can only be tolerated when the book really has something to tell us. This one does.
The manic diligence of surgeons in the early years of the 'war on cancer' is as scary as the aggression of radiologists and chemotherapists. As is the neglect of prevention that ruled for a surprisingly long time. Much frenzy, hype, hope, and bitter disappointment has happened.
The tide has possibly turned. Mortality moves down, gradually. All prongs contribute. Are we there yet? Hardly.
Geneticists are apparently making progress towards a better understanding of the biology of cancer. Some cures for specific cancers have actually been found, but the enemy keeps evolving. We need to run fast in order to stay in the same place, and even faster for progress. The red queen knew about that.
The book has much to say on the politics of science and health care. The historical politicization of cancer research and therapy is striking and is one aspect that makes this book worth reading. Company decisions based on profitability, and strategy considerations don't play as big a part in this story, as I would have expected.
Anyway, better don't catch it, even if your survival odds are getting better.