Stephen King’s The Stand is one of my all time favorite books. It’s hard not to love – a massive epic of good vs evil set in a post-apocalyptic America populated with memorable characters and narrated with King’s trademark macabre folksiness. I’ve read it at least four or five times since middle school.
And every time I’ve come down with a cold.
For those who haven’t read the book, the collapse of civilization is brought about from a government lab (where else?) in the guise of Captain Tripps, the Superflu, which begins its infection with innocuous, flu-like symptoms. It’s ridiculous, really, to suppose that reading about a fictional disease could possibly bring about an actual illness. Yet, it always does. And I’m not alone. A good friend of mine, and another avid Stephen King fan, reports the same phenomenon with his numerous readings of The Stand. I imagine that we’re probably not alone; the human mind is incredibly prone to suggestion.
On that note, I issue a word of warning to anyone especially susceptible to such suggestions: See a doctor after reading Siddhartha Mukherjee’s The Emperor of All Maladies. Just to set your mind at ease.
That shouldn’t be taken as a criticism. On the contrary, it’s probably some of the highest praise that could be offered for a book that attempts to not only explain the history of cancer over the past three thousand years, but to also explain the scientific and medical intricacies of the most complicated and horrific of human scourges. This isn’t an academic tract that will have you snoozing five pages in or skimming through entire chapters. You’ll read every single word.
As one fascinated by history, the progression of cancer treatment over the past few hundred years was a captivating story. Yet, what really struck home, was Mukherjee’s medical explanations of cancer itself. Sometime in the 1990’s, Dennis Leary released a comedy album entitled “No Cure for Cancer.” Who knew he was a prophet. Dr. Mukherjee arrives at the same dismal conclusion. While treatment for cancer has undoubtedly progressed and will continue to do so, the idea of eradicating the many myriad forms of this disease is most likely impossible. At it’s essence, cancer is a cell or group of cells which, through a series of fortuitous mutations, has become more adept than normal cells at reproducing and surviving. The very processes by which humans grow and adapt at the cellular level are the same processes which are utilized by cancer cells so that they may divide and reproduce. As Dr. Mukherjee writes (I’m paraphrasing, but I’m pretty close), “Cancer cells are more perfect versions of us.”
The future is not all bleak, however. The Emporer of All Maladies does highlight the amazing progress in cancer treatments, especially in the use of genetic treatments developed in the last decade. The idea of eradication may be a pipe-dream, but the idea of turning cancer into a manageable medical condition is a very real possibility which has already come to pass for certain types of cancer.
Despite this closing optimism, reading a book which dissects such a scary and formidable foe, makes one thing twice about that nagging stomach discomfort or occasional headache. The future may hold wonderful possibilities but, as all too many people are tragically aware, that future is not here yet.
It’s probably time for that annual physical I’ve been putting off.