The recently aired PBS documentary Cancer: The Emperor of All Maladies truly moved and unsettled me. It also filled me with tremendous hope for the future of cancer research.
That’s because the depth with which filmmakers Ken Burns and Barak Goodman examine the past, present and possible future of cancer is equally terrifying and beautiful.
Exploring the history of the disease—first recorded by an Egyptian physician thousands of years ago—the six-hour film series delves thoroughly into cancer’s vast complexity. While it wonderfully showcases humanity’s historical progress in treating certain types of cancer, it also lays bare the herculean work that still must be done to understand it—let alone cure it. Work that will only be accomplished through exhaustive, ongoing research.
The stories of many clinical and basic science breakthroughs play out dramatically in the film—from Sydney Farber’s early progress in seeking a cure for leukemia to the work of Johns Hopkins’ Bert Vogelstein, who first identified and sequenced the genetic mutations that lead to cancer. Yet, for every seeming success, we are hauntingly reminded of cancer’s uncanny ability to adapt to and survive new treatments.
But the most poignant moments of Cancer: The Emperor of all Maladies come from the stories of the patients, their loved ones and caregivers—the people who’ve traversed cancer’s utter darkness. The story of Olivia Blair, a pediatric leukemia patient at Johns Hopkins, was incredibly moving and harrowing. We witness her journey—alongside her and her devastated yet desperately hopeful parents—through months of traditional and experimental treatments. In one of the final scenes of the episode titled “Magic Bullets,” we find Olivia in full remission. But countless others, just like Olivia and her family, are not nearly as fortunate.
It’s for them and for future generations that all of us—from policymakers to health care workers to donors—must support our best researchers and clinicians, so that, one day, they can accomplish what has eluded us for so long.