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Thinking Out Loud

“Diseases desperate grown”

by Michael Jinkins | Jun 07, 2011

The passage is Shakespeare’s, from Hamlet:

“Diseases desperate grown

By desperate appliance are relieved,

Or not at all.”[1]

It also appears at the beginning of Siddhartha Mukherjee’s superb book, The Emperor of all Maladies: A Biography of Cancer, one of the most penetrating and thoroughly fascinating historical investigations of a medical or scientific field I have ever read. Mukherjee’s book follows on the heels of last year’s runaway bestseller, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot, a book of such profound humanity and erudition that it now appears on the required reading list for some residents in oncology. Following the publication of these two books is James L. Kugel’s In the Valley of the Shadow: On the Foundations of Religious Belief, which on one level is an inquiry into the “foundations of religious belief,” but on another is the story of a person’s struggle with mortality and meaning in the face of a very bad diagnosis.

Each of these books relate in one way or another to cancer. Each has its own story to tell. And each should be required reading for any pastor, any elder or deacon or member of a congregational care team, or anyone whose life or family has been touched by this desperate disease. Well now, that’s just about all of us.

So why should we read these books?

If ever there was a person born to tell a particular story it was Rebecca Skloot. With humanity and compassion she tells the story of Henrietta Lacks, an African American woman, who died of cancer in Baltimore in 1951. Cancer cells taken from her without her knowledge or consent – as they were routinely taken from countless patients in that era – showed a remarkable capacity to continue to live and to grow and to divide in laboratories, becoming the first “immortal cells.” Named the HeLa cells, they have been used in research the world over and have contributed to medical advances and saved lives beyond number. Yet, Henrietta’s family, still living in poverty, has no medical insurance to take care of the simplest procedures. This is one of the most enthralling “reads” you’ll ever come across, but it is also one of the most deeply disturbing and moving. There are cautionary, and celebratory, aspects of her and her family’s experience that we should never forget.

The Emperor of all Maladies is an enthralling “must read” for completely different reasons. Siddhartha Mukherjee does for cancer what Oliver Sacks does for neurology. He takes us deep inside the humanity of cancer. He transports us from the earliest appearance of the disease (in ancient Egypt) to the latest developments in genetics, but he never loses the human focus, the human dimension, the human costs of the disease. “Scientists,” he writes, “often study the past as obsessively as historians because few other professions depend so acutely on it. Every experiment is a conversation with a prior experiment, every new theory a refutation of the old.” At 472 pages (not counting end notes) this is not a quick and easy read. But, seriously, any pastor or care-giver who wants to understand more deeply what those with cancer are facing, what those who treat cancer are struggling to understand, and just what we are up against with the cunning disease, should read this book. Mukherjee’s compassion and humanity are only matched by his humility, as he observes near the end of the book, quoting Richard Klausner, director of the National Cancer Institute: “There are far more good historians than there are good prophets.”

The story of how Harvard professor of religion James Kugel came to terms with a highly aggressive malignancy is important because the way we face death and the threat of death has so much to do with the way we live our lives. This book will hook you from the beginning. Kugel had me on page two when he quoted William Saroyan who is reported to have said on his deathbed: “I know everyone has to die, but somehow I always thought an exception would be made in my case.” From Kugel’s superb translations and careful readings of Hebrew texts to his personal reflections on his own life and death and the significance of religious faith, this book offers, page after page, an unsympathetic, richly textured examination of ultimate reality. To say that the searing honesty of his faith is “refreshing” is vapid and silly. His searing honesty is a form of faith, and it is necessary, as when he reflects on the passage in Proverbs 12:21, “No harm befalls the righteous, but the wicked are full of misfortune.” “No harm befalls the righteous” [Kugel writes] “- in what world did the author of those words live?”

Today, I am recommending three books on cancer, if you will. You may decide that you can’t read them all at once. But I do encourage you to read them all.

James L. Kugel, In the Valley of the Shadow: On the Foundations of Religious Belief (New York: Free Press, 2011).

Siddhartha Mukherjee, The Emperor of all Maladies: A Biography of Cancer (New York: Scribner, 2010).

Rebecca Skloot, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (New York: Crown Publishers, 2010).


[1] William Shakespeare, Hamlet (Act IV, Scene III).

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