The scariest show on TV this spring hasn’t been “Helix” or “The Walking Dead.” Rather it has been the six-hour PBS documentary “The Emperor of All Maladies,” from the book of the same name. The creature in it isn’t a mythological beast, a vampire or zombie or the work of a mad scientist. It is cancer.
Back in the 1950s many science-fiction horrors were thinly disguised stand-ins for nuclear weapons and their deadly fallout or the brainwashed, soulless, relentless automatons of the communist menace. Today, many of the creatures that are concocted to give us the creeps resemble real life killers that invade our bodies and take it over – AIDS, MRSA and the dark lord of death, cancer.
As the of “The Emperor of All Maladies” shows, we have repeatedly believed we have outwitted and killed cancer. But like Michael Myers in the “Halloween” films, it lives on. The silver bullets haven’t worked, nor the stakes through the heart. Surgery didn’t eradicate it. Radiation was a miracles cure that proved able to cause new cancers. Chemo has become more effective for some cancers, but the creature often morphs faster than the drugs can keep up with. Cancer keeps rising from the dead to kill again.
The deeper the vampire killers have seen into the enemy, the more formidable is the foe they have discovered. Like Death in “The Seventh Seal,” cancer plays a mean game of chess. Scientists have discovered oncogenes to block and pathways to disrupt and predispositions in our genomes to fear. Work is afoot on ways to tailor therapies to patients personally, no doubt at vast expense, but cancer seems fiendishly able to checkmate every new attempt. And it works for free.
Despairing of a single silver bullet for so multifarious an enemy, many now believe the best way to beat the devil is to minimize risks of unleashing the beast. Don’t smoke, keep one’s weight under control, and avoid sunlight, radiation, asbestos. Perhaps thirty percent of cancers can be avoided by living a perpetually cautious life. But that leaves a lot of the cancers that, so far, seem to arise for no good reason other than unidentified carcinogens, random mutation or genetic predisposition. So far there’s not much that can be done about those.
Mutation is clearly the stuff of horror shows, and in this case doubly disturbing because the alien thing doing the mutation and set on killing you is not out there, but within yourself. It is yourself, gone bad, and so the battleground of any war on it is also you. Yet our best defense, the immune system, has often appeared to have gone AWOL in this fight. Logically enough, it declines to shoot the enemy because it is not foe but friend. It wears the same cellular uniform. To kill it requires the patient to engage in friendly fire.
Much of the narrative of “Emperor” recounts the long record of hopes raised, only to be dashed. A possibly encouraging antidote to that depressing litany aired earlier. In a post from March 5, I discussed the episode of HBO’s “Vice” called “Killing Cancer.” It chronicles attempt to use reengineered viruses, including AIDS and measles, to invade and occupy cancers. This technique aims at restarting an immune response to the cancer by identifying it not as part of the body but as an alien invader. So far the results are remarkable, but we’ve heard that before. People keep dying.
Like many, I am sensitized to the lurking creature because we have met before. Both my parents, an uncle, a great-grandfather all died of cancer. “The Emperor” is dedicated to several such victims, among them the mother of Ken Burns who died of cancer in her thirties, and actor Edward Herrmann who narrates the show. He succumbed to brain cancer on New Year’s Eve, 2014. This was presumably his last professional engagement.
Historical footage from “Emperor” shows newscasters announcing various milestones in the fight against the disease. But not enough breakthroughs to save the commentators themselves. There are the young John Chancellor, lost to stomach cancer at 68, Peter Jennings to lung cancer at 67 and Tom Brokaw, presently dealing with multiple myeloma.
Clearly cancer is the villain we all fear the most, yet Congress that can spend like a drunken sailor on defense or hand out tax breaks to fossil fuel companies without thought of a balanced budget has cut funding for cancer research by 26 percent since 2003. This at a time when more is being learned and promising therapies beckon. Once we did not understand the nature of the foe. Now, thanks to genetic research we begin to see the face of the enemy more clearly and to understand its weaknesses.
New weapons are being developed, but progress would be faster if the government were in the fight. While some advocate war on Iran and ISIS, cancer is actually afflicting 1,600,000 Americans a year and killing 600,000. Instead of fighting each other or agitating to spend blood and treasure on foreign wars, couldn’t members of Congress consider attacking a common enemy? Cancer is the arch terrorist of our time. Kill it.