Health & Fitness

In cancer war, Pulitzer Prize-winning author offers hope — and caution

Dr. Siddartha Mukherjee, author of a Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of cancer, will be the keynote speaker at a one-day conference hosted by UM’s Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center on Thursday.
Dr. Siddartha Mukherjee, author of a Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of cancer, will be the keynote speaker at a one-day conference hosted by UM’s Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center on Thursday. University of Miami

One would think that, after studying the scourge of cancer from its earliest recorded history to the present, physician and scientist Siddhartha Mukherjee would suffer from a deficit of optimism.

He doesn’t. “Overall the cancer rate is rising because we are living longer,” Mukherjee says. “But if you adjust for age, we are actually dying less of cancer. In some cases, we have had dramatic improvements in treatment.”

But not in all kinds of cancer — which may be why Mukherjee’s book, the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer, is being made into a six-hour PBS documentary miniseries by filmmaker Ken Burns, to be aired in March 2015. Mukherjee knows cancer not only from a clinical perspective but a historical one, having tracked both the disease and the treatments through the centuries.

As the luncheon keynote speaker at Thursday’s WellBeingWell Conference hosted by the University of Miami’s Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center, he will talk about wellness in the context of cancer, providing both perspective and a road map for what he believes can be done to improve our knowledge of diseases that kill about one in four Americans, second only to heart disease.

The conference also will feature presentations by Sylvester scientists and other national healthcare leaders, who will discuss men’s and women’s health, preventive healthcare, nutrition, exercise, genetics, clinical trials and cancer treatment and survivorship.

Cancer is not always an easy subject to address, when so many still view The Big C diagnosis as a death sentence. But, as Mukherjee points out, such pessimism is far from accurate. Treatment, as well as an emphasis on prevention, has steadily improved survival rates over the decades. He cites improved outcomes in breast cancer and certain forms of leukemia, specifically the way physicians are able to successfully treat CML, or chronic myelogenous leukemia, a cancer that starts inside bone marrow. Most CML patients can now take medication, in the form of a pill that targets an abnormal protein.

He also points out that there will never be a singular way to treat cancer because not all cancers behave the same. “We don’t know why CML is so readily treatable. Such genetic switches have been harder to find in other cancers.”

Studying the human genome has been “enormously useful” in the treatment of cancers and other diseases, he says. Researchers, however, increasingly believe that most cancers do not result from inherited genes but from damage to genes caused by both internal and external factors.

“We have to look beyond the genome,’’ Mukherjee adds. “It’s just one of the many clues in the puzzle.’’

Mukherjee, a Rhodes scholar, is an assistant professor of medicine at Columbia University and a staff cancer physician at Columbia University Medical Center. He admits he had no idea a biography on cancer would prove to be popular enough to earn filmmaker Burns’ attention as well as a non-fiction Pulitzer. The book, first published in 2010, received glowing praise, including from a Boston Globe reviewer, who said the tome had earned Mukherjee “a rightful place alongside Carl Sagan, Stephen Jay Gould, and Stephen Hawking in the pantheon of our epoch's great explicators.”

If you go

What: The WellBeingWell Conference, a community education day hosted by UM’s Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center, will be from 8:15 a.m. to 3:45 p.m. Thursday at the JW Marriott Marquis, 255 Biscayne Blvd. Way.

Highlights: Luncheon keynote speaker Siddhartha Mukherjee, M.D., Ph.D., and Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer”; breakfast keynote speaker Stephen D. Nimer, M.D., director of the Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center.

Cost: $125 per person.

For information, visit http://sylvester.org/community/signature-events/wellbeingwell, call Katie Repici at 305-243-9088, or email krepici@med.miami.edu

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