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Watch Ken Burns’s Documentary on the History of Cancer, Adapted from “The Emperor of All Maladies” This Week on PBS

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Starting tomorrow, Monday, 3/30, and running over three nights, our US-based audience can tune into their public broadcasting station (PBS) to watch a cancer documentary unlike one ever produced. Ken Burns, the definitive historian documentarian of our era, who has covered topics ranging from the American Civil War to Prohibition to Jazz to baseball, has produced what we should all expect will be the richest history of cancer ever portrayed, using the excellent Pulizer Prize-winning book “The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer” by Siddhartha Mukherjee as the leading source material.

Story of Cancer emperor of all maladies

This is a widely anticipated event throughout the cancer world.  The US National Cancer Institute (NCI) will be leading a “live tweeting” event throughout the broadcasting of each episode, about which you can learn more here.  I’ll be participating in that as well as upcoming commentary on Medscape that provides additional perspective from those of us living “the story of cancer”. For that matter, it’s likely that everyone in the audience is also part of that story, so you’re encouraged to watch and participate.

Though I haven’t yet seen the documentary, I’ve read the book and therefore have a fairly good idea of the breadth of what it will cover. In the wake of its presentation, I’ll offer my impressions of what we can expect as the biggest changes for the next several years, the present and future chapters of this ongoing story.  Here are my top 5 truly cancer world-changing events occurring right now, in real time, that will form the core of the next 10 years of cancer care:

1) Genomic testing of a broad range of cancers will become commonplace and allow us to identify a spectrum of mutations in different cancers very readily. This will be paired with an ever-growing arsenal of targeted therapies against these mutations.

2) It will become increasingly feasible to do testing on blood samples instead of or in addition to tissue biopsies, to look at circulating tumor cells and free DNA in serum that can provide a window into changes in the cancer over time and treatment without requiring the invasiveness of a relatively inaccessible tumor tissue biopsy.

3) Immunotherapies, already entering specific cancer settings now, will become a central component in the treatment of many cancers, providing longer term control for a wider range of patients. In the next decade, we will become better able to predict which patients are most likely to benefit and prioritize immunotherapy relative to other strategies accordingly. Ideally, we’ll learn how to modulate that probability of response, but I’m less confident we’ll be there in the next decade.

4) The role of the patient will grow significantly. It will be increasingly valuable for patients to have some understanding of their options and play a more active role in their care. We will see the introduction of “information prescriptions” for patients, in which physicians and other health care professionals will recommend specific topics and sources for patients to self-learn important issues related to their care, as a supplement to the time-limited discussion in the clinic.

5) The economics of cancer care will become a key component of the discussion, as we wrestle with difficult issues around the value of increasingly expensive treatments and ask questions in the US that have been asked in the rest of the world more commonly up to now: “Does this treatment provide some semblance of value, or is it cost-prohibitive, even if it provides some measurable benefit?”.  We have reached a point where the market can no longer bear to have the cost of newer cancer medicines rise at more than 10% per year. Even if treatments are truly helpful, we won’t have the societal resources to spend $15-20,000 per month on cancer care and also still have roads and schools. The system needs to change.


As always, I welcome your opinions. For now, I’ll encourage everyone to join the mass viewing of the upcoming Ken Burns-Siddhartha Mukherjee documentary on cancer, which will be a seminal event itself in the story of cancer.

One Response to Watch Ken Burns’s Documentary on the History of Cancer, Adapted from “The Emperor of All Maladies” This Week on PBS

  • angelina005 says:

    I watched it while in the hospital receiving my last treatment of chemo.! I found it very informative. thank you for highlighting the main points. I totally agree with all that you listed and one that I identify 100% with is the active roll of the patient. I believe I am alive thank you to my very own advocacy and all I did, of course i do give credit to the doctors & surgeons, nurses, but I made it through the chemo therapy which was strong and truly I describe it as hell… I took a very very active roll all along before, while and after treatment. I continue to advocate for myself, learning , getting more and more information, and asking questions, partnering with my doctors (which I was lucky to have doctors who are not afraid of questions by patients, or afraid to say I don’t have enough knowledge in that field, etc.. and who were compassionate and still professional). thank you for this wonderful forum.. it is one of the best I have ever joined perhaps the best one.
    I will watch this again, because it is a lot of information to take.

    kind regards,

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