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I first heard about the six-hour, three-part documentary film Cancer: The Emperor of All Maladies while writing my previous post about its originating book, and afterwards discovered that iTunes sells it for nine dollars. Watched the first two hours last night and quite like it so far, especially having just worked through Mukherjee’s marathon “biography” of the disease. Despite the downer subject matter, I admit that I felt quietly elated watching it, like I’d earned it, or even helped bring it into being somehow. Well, if I hadn’t written about the book I might never have discovered the film, so there’s that.
The documentary replaces the book’s original frame-story: instead of recounting the author’s leading a particular cancer patient in Boston from first diagnosis through final cure, it follows other contemporary patients’ treatment in scenes intercut among the historical material. These include the stories of very sick litte children and their emotionally wracked families, all in the present day, and I found it a tough watch, though quite gripping. Also quite sobering, having just read in the book how chemotherapy’s status as a hoped-for panacea against all cancers lay in the past, but here it is still in active use as sometimes the best immediate course of treatment, despite all its attendant risks and pain, and to such tiny bodies. (We meet one boy who suffers from a secondary cancer brought about by the chemo that eradicated his first — a sadly common outcome.)
The film opens with a few selections of archival footage: A sequence of American presidents, from LBJ through Obama, all stating to the camera how they intended to personally witness cancer put to an end. Then a scene from an educational film about cancer that looked and sounded circa-1955, a woman losing sleep as thoughts of the disease echoed through her mind, implying a shroud of mystery and terror. My partner, at the first of these: “Was that… Johnson?” To her they seemed surreal, anachronistically modern language dubbed into grainy black-and-white recordings, Forrest Gump-style.
And I knew just what she meant! I had a very similar reaction reading the first parts of Mukherjee’s book, describing the American view of cancer circa 1910, with both physician-celebrities and public-health officials blustering confidently about the disease’s surely imminent eradication, and uncoyly employing the language of war for the first time on this topic. (As suited, perhaps, their preference for using the tools of battlefield medicine, with the prevailing theory that eliminating cancer was a simple matter of hewing away whatever quadrant of the body evidenced it.)
She and I both grew up during the tobacco industry’s long decline in the United States — well after the overnight-ubiquitous Surgeon General’s Warnings and a new, national emphasis on prevention over treatment had all but assured the ultimate outcome, but with those who stood to gain from selling cheap and addictive carcinogens waging an existential and decades-protracted battle for every inch of public perception, however doomed their fight. I know that in my case, after a childhood bathing in the huge, intentional culture-shifting project of ubiquitous anti-smoking media, cancer felt new. Maybe just a little bit older than me, perhaps akin to the Apollo moon landings. There did exist novelty, but it all lay in the attitude and the intensity of the message, not the disease it pointed to. I find it easy to see in retrospect how, at the time, cancer meant lung cancer, specifically, and smoking caused lung cancer, and this fact was so new and important that C-3PO epitomized this message for a whole generation.
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