London-based documentary filmmaker Wishart (Leaving Reality Behind, 2003) weaves his father’s story into a medical history that traces cancer from its earliest appearance to the present hopes for a cure.
The author knew little about the causes, biology and treatment of cancer when his father was diagnosed in 2002. His informative book contains answers to many questions about a disease that touches the lives of one person in three. His father’s first surgery introduces an account of the 1831 removal of a tumor before the advent of anesthetics; the subsequent medical examination of Wishart Sr.’s tumor is linked to the pioneering work of 19th-century pathologist Rudolf Virchow. Throughout, the author similarly embeds the moving personal story of his father’s diagnosis and treatment within scientific material introducing researchers and lobbyists for cancer research, showing the political and social climate in which they worked. (Portraits of Marie Curie and Mary Lasker are particularly notable.) Wishart shatters myths about cancer’s causes and explores the risks and benefits of drugs. Modern science’s inability to save his father’s life leads to a discussion of alternative medicine and a description of the hospice movement; the discovery from an autopsy that his father’s primary cancer was in his prostate leads him to speculate about his own genetic inheritance and possible risk. The final chapter, making use of Wishart’s research into cancer, is a history of his father’s illness, beginning with the mutation of a single cell in the prostate and ending with its multiplication and inevitable spread throughout the body. An epilogue expresses measured optimism: The genetic revolution and advances in molecular biology, he writes, offer hope for improvements in diagnosis and treatment that will eventually make cancer something we live with rather than die from.
A loving portrait of one man and an accessible account of what cancer is, where research and treatment are now and how they got there.