I’ve read quite a few books about cancer over the years. Many of my favorites are books that help the reader understand something of what we know about cancer, the stories behind the progress that has been made and where research is headed now. I also like to read books about how our approach to medicine can be more responsive to peoples’ needs, as well as an occasional memoir.
In this post, I’m sharing my “top 10” of the best books about cancer that I’ve read so far. I’ve written reviews of several of these books and the links to those are included.
The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer by Siddhartha Mukherjee
If there is one “must-read” book about cancer, this is it. Mukherjee tells a captivating story as he takes us along the journey from the earliest human understandings of cancer to where we are now in our knowledge about this dreaded set of diseases and in our efforts to find cures.
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
Henrietta Lacks may not be a household name but she should be. The immortal cell line derived from the aggressive cervical cancer that killed her many decades ago, and taken without her consent, has been responsible for countless medical research discoveries over the years. The book tells the story of how her relatives have fought for recognition of her enormous contribution to cancer research and the development of cancer therapies and many other medical breakthroughs.
Radical: The Science, Culture and History of Breast Cancer in America by Kate Pickert
In Radical, Kate Pickert offers important insights into the breast cancer conundrum, which asks: “with all the awareness and research dollars focused on breast cancer, why aren’t we making more progress?” The reader learns where we are with the science of breast cancer and some of the ways our societal attitudes hold us back from making more rapid progress. An absorbing read. You can read my review here.
Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End by Atul Gawande
The focus of our medical system has been on prolonging life through whatever means possible. But when people reflect on what really matters to them when time runs short, there are other goals that surface as more important, Atul Gawande shows us in this book. Even if we can never be fully prepared to face our own mortality, we can be much better prepared than we are to make decisions when the time comes that can reduce suffering and improve quality of life for our loved ones and for ourselves. My review is here.
The Gene: An Intimate History by Siddhartha Mukherjee
This book is another fascinating read by the author of The Emperor of All Maladies. Mukherjee describes how the mysteries of the gene–what exactly it is, where it is in the body, and how it works–were unraveled by researchers one step at a time, culminating with the sequencing of the human genome in the year 2000. We’re now learning much more about the probabilities of having certain diseases or conditions based on our genomes. Mukurjee speaks to critical questions that arise from that knowledge. You can read my review here.
Toms River: A Story of Science and Salvation by Dan Fagin
We don’t hear very much about cancer clusters these days. And that is most likely because it is so extraordinarily difficult to prove that seeming clusters of cancer cases in a locality are due to more than just chance. The story of Toms River, a town in southern New Jersey, as told by science journalist Dan Fagin in this book is a fascinating example of this phenomenon and an engrossing read.
Breasts: A Natural and Unnatural History by Florence Williams
Breast cancer is the leading cause of cancer death for women globally. Yet, we still don’t know very much about what actually causes breast cancer. What is it about breasts that make them so susceptible to cancer? This fascinating book provides some insights into that question. We learn that our breasts are a highly communicative organ, primed to respond to signals both internal and external. The trait is important, at least from an evolutionary standpoint, but makes us more vulnerable to the development of cancer in the world we live in now. My review of the book is here.
Her2: The Making of Herceptin, a Revolutionary Treatment for Breast Cancer by Robert Bazell
Herceptin is one of the very few true “breakthrough” cancer treatments that we have had in the last 30 years. The story of how it came to be is remarkable and well worth reading. It was only through the efforts of researchers, activists and others who refused to give up that Herceptin ever actually made it to patients and became a new standard-of-care treatment that has made a real difference in the lives of so many individuals diagnosed with HER2-positive breast cancer.
The Truth in Small Doses by Clifton Leaf
Why has the “war on cancer” not been more successful after all these year? Leaf’s central thesis as to why we have not seen more progress is that efforts have been plagued from the start by a lack of organization and direction. Although this book was written a few years ago, it is still illuminating. Especially since now we have seen–with the rapid development of highly effective vaccines against COVID-19–what really can be accomplished when there is meaningful coordination. My review is here.
Between Two Kingdoms: A Memoir of a Life Interrupted by Suleika Jaouad
As a young woman faced with a diagnosis of a rare and deadly form of leukemia, Suleika Jaouad finds that the many plans she had for her life have to be put on hold as she navigates a difficult course of treatment. Cancer takes its toll on her life in many ways, but despite the struggles she finds a way forward. Jaoluad’s story is intense and very personal, but hopeful as well. An excellent read.
That’s it for my current list. It wasn’t easy to choose. I’ve read lots of excellent books that are in one way or another about cancer. If you have a favorite book about cancer, let me know in the comments!
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Photo by Lisa DeFerrari