Cancer. The word alone is frightening. Each year, cancer affects 1.7 million Americans, killing 600,000 of them. More people will die from cancer in the next two years than were killed in all the wars the U.S. has fought, combined. By the year 2030, an estimated 22 million people worldwide will have it. We can't avoid cancer, and because knowledge is power, the PBS miniseries "Cancer: The Emperor of All Maladies" is must-see television.
Premiering March 30, the six-hour, three-part documentary is based on Dr. Siddhartha Mukhurjee's Pulitzer Prize‑winning 2010 book "The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer." The series tackles the disease from a historical, scientific and sociopolitical perspective, showcasing both the people it affects and the doctors and researchers who've made important discoveries and are continuing to develop ways to prevent, treat and cure it.
"What we're really telling is a detective story, what we think is a riveting narrative — essentially the story of scientists and physicians who are making scientific discoveries that have everything to do with one of the most crucial human questions," says executive producer Ken Burns, who served as creative consultant/writer on the film. Burns says he couldn't pass up a film that hit so close to home: His mother died of breast cancer when he was 11.
"This is a very momentous time in cancer research in the sense that we are in the middle of a real revolution of understanding cancer and unlocking the disease at the most basic level," says producer/director Barak Goodman, who lost a grandmother to cancer when he was 20. "That has the promise of leading us to treatments that really work. So it's a great moment to look back, to look at where we are and to look ahead."
The series follows scientists who've made important contributions to oncology, as well as several patient case studies — including children and a doctor who develops cancer in both breasts.
"We filmed with a lot of people and it came down to these cases that resonated the most with the points we were trying to bring out," says Goodman.
In what was to be his final project, actor Edward Herrmann, who, ironically, died of brain cancer after completing his narration, helps to connect the narrative's many dots.
Highly magnified ovarian cancer cells. (Photo: Nephron/Wikimedia Commons)
Telling a complex story
Burns says it wasn't easy to blend and condense the history and complex science in a cohesive and understandable way without sacrificing intelligence or impact.
"We weren't going to dumb down," says Burns, who calls the film "an incredibly existential sort of roller‑coaster of emotions, a roller‑coaster of discoveries every time there's huge failure. That's the nature of science and the nature of this story, which I think makes it all the more interesting, when abject failure has resulted in one of these great transformative moments."
"Cancer" shows how far research has come in the last few decades, says Mukherjee.
"The 1970s and 1980s were a time of definitions, defining what is cancer. The 1980s and 1990s were about understanding those definitions — how many genes are there, what are they, what they look like. The 2000s and onward is the beginning of the therapeutic revolution. We understand more about cancer cells, which wasn't the case 20 years ago," he says.
"Immunotherapy, the idea that you can use your immune system to battle cancer cells has produced the most profound remissions that we've ever seen in the history of cancer — for some forms of cancer — has been brought to life. I didn't get it in my book because it wasn't there yet."
Loss of research funds
Unfortunately, as the film points out, cutbacks in cancer funding have impacted the research necessary to test these treatments and work toward a cure.
"This is happening at precisely the moment when we are poised to make the greatest advances," says Goodman. "The film makes clear that you don't get progress without basic research. People who are impatient for direct results are not going to be in favor of funding for research but it's critical to any progress we make."
"There's a loss of funds and a loss of talent, particularly in research," says Mukherjee. "The person who might make that crucial discovery that would change the landscape for immunotherapy for breast cancer is looking for another job doing something else, and that is devastating. But I'm optimistic despite the political realm. I'm optimistic because of the science and patients."
A war on many fronts
"Cancer" also pays tribute to the power of advocacy and the difference publicity, marketing and raising awareness can make. It highlights the contributions of relentless advocate and fundraiser Mary Lasker, "who took it upon herself in the 1960s to speak out for the millions who didn't have a voice," says Mukherjee.
The third episode in particular spotlights cutting-edge advances, scientists who are "perfecting combinations of chemotherapy, perfecting radiation, perfecting surgery, looking at targeted therapy, immunotherapy, prevention efforts," says Burns. "Some cancers have become treatable; others have not and they represent a great human challenge."
Mukherjee points out that the war on cancer, like similarly massive battles against poverty and drugs, are cannot be fought on one front. "They're multifaceted problems and demand multifaceted solutions."
Despite the subject matter and its often tragic ramifications, this series is hopeful, says Goodman, right.
"There's a revolution that's happened in the last 30 to 40 years in understanding this disease, this family of diseases. The pace of discovery in the last three decades has been astonishing and outpaced discovery for the previous century," Goodman says. "A Rubicon has been crossed. Everyone we spoke to agreed on that. They're hopeful about the future. That's what I hope will bring people to the series."
On the horizon
Goodman is currently working with Henry Louis Gates Jr. on his ongoing "Finding Your Roots" genealogy series and a film about the rise of the militant Right in the 1990s. Burns is simultaneously working on five different projects: Ernest Hemingway and Jackie Robinson bios, a 10-part history of the Vietnam War, the history of country music, and a film version of book Mukherjee is writing about the history of the gene. The doctor's "Laws of Medicine," about what he's learned from his cases, will be published in the fall.
Mukherjee believes there's a lot to learn from the "Cancer" series as well. "Because cancer is such a distillate of us, from the biological to the political to the social, the greatest anxieties, the deepest fears, the greatest scientific achievements in human history, people will find that in this film and more," he says.
"I would add that some of that fear and trepidation that people have when they think about the word cancer is diminished and replaced by real understanding," says Goodman. "I think that people will be carried by the narrative and the suspense and the discoveries and by this overwhelming sense that we are definitely getting somewhere, and that this disease will look far different for our children and our grandchildren than it does for us."
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