What I’ve Learned from Watching “Cancer: The Emperor of All Maladies”

April 1, 2015

Cancer is commonly called a thief, a villain, a plague and a few “NSFW” words I won’t use here. But its latest nickname is “The Emperor.” When it comes to an illness, cancer truly is the emperor. It rules all others, makes no exception to who it targets, is powerful, greedy and does not want to be stopped.

When I first started watching the PBS documentary Cancer: The Emperor of All Maladies on Monday night I wasn’t sure I agreed with calling cancer an emperor. It seemed to be such a positive and powerful term to place on something with such a negative impact. But after two nights of tuning in and live tweeting, and as I get ready for the third, I get it. Cancer is a disease like no other, even within itself it never seems to be the same way twice—it’s smarter than that. Giving a powerful disease a powerful name pays respect to the millions of people who take on “The Emperor” every year–a respect greatly earned by all who are affected.

But that isn’t the only thing that struck me while watching the first two nights of the film. For anyone who hasn’t watched yet, it takes us back to decades ago and walks us through the progression of treatment and innovation–from when we first treated childhood leukemia with chemicals (an extremely radical idea in its day), to the first radiation therapy treatment given by a homemade x-ray, to using a form of mustard gas, and then the inspiring success of the Herceptin clinical trial. However, cancer treatment isn’t the only thing that progressed during the film. We have come leaps and bounds from the early days when it comes to patient support. Cancer was once believed to be a communicable disease, where patients were sent away from society upon their diagnosis. People lived in fear that they could catch the disease, or worse, give it to their friends, family members or neighbors. Treatment decisions were made by the physician, not the patient. And social and emotional distress was just an unfortunate side effect to be overlooked.

Today, the landscape is different, but there are still strides to be made, not just in searching for a cure, but in improving the entire patient experience. Until cancer is history, the Cancer Support Community and countless others will be working tirelessly to support all who are impacted by this malady.

Cancer: The Emperor of All Maladies airs at 9 p.m. ET on your local PBS channel. CSC and countless others will be tweeting our thoughts throughout the film with the hashtag #CancerFilm. Follow us at @CancerSupportcm to join in the conversation. To learn more about this important documentary, listen to this episode of Frankly Speaking About Cancer with two of the men behind the film, Executive Producer Ken Burns and Director Barak Goodman.