Ken Burns executive produces Cancer: The Emperor of All Maladies, a three-part, six-hour documentary based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning book by cancer researcher Dr. Siddhartha Mukherjee. Airing on PBS March 30-April 1 at 9pm ET (check local listings), the ambitious project tells the story of cancer from nearly every angle, looking at the history of its diagnosis, study and treatment, following current patients battling the disease, and uncovering breakthroughs that might someday lead to a cure.
The first episode, “Magic Bullets,” focuses on the centuries-long search for a cure. Tuesday’s episode, “The Blind Men and the Elephant,” looks at the rapid advances in cancer research since 1971, including the discovery of cancer’s genetic basis. The series concludes Wednesday with “Finding the Achilles Heel,” looking at the development of targeted therapies and the exciting prospect of immunotherapy treatments.
The weighty images and information make Cancer an unsettling — albeit essential — documentary to watch. The truths presented, particularly about the randomness of the disease, are shocking. “The vulnerability is already within us,” Mukherjee says. “The genes that keep you alive will, under different circumstances, end your life.”
Cancer is an ultimately uplifting film, but it comes with a stern warning. “There is a gigantic, gigantic funding crisis in cancer and in research in general in the United States,” Mukherjee says. “In real dollars the United States is suffering a 10-20 percent, if not 30 percent, cut in cancer research funding. And we are not going to solve the problem of cancer, whether it be prevention, treatment, or cure, we’re not going to solve any problem of cancer by doing less research. We understand the disease in a way we didn’t understand 10 years ago. The NIH and the National Cancer Institute and organizations like Stand Up to Cancer, which have helped with this film, are doing a phenomenal job. They are working twice their time. They are moving at twice the speed just to stay in the same place. They’re like the Red Queen in Alice in Wonderland. Their feet are spinning faster because the world is moving in the opposite direction. The budget sequester has cost us a vast drain of cancer resources. I cannot — I can speak very personally — I cannot maintain the smartest brains in my laboratory. These are people whose discoveries will impact your life, I promise you, in a more direct way than if they went to Wall Street or they went to do some other form of work. These people are trained. They are dedicated to discovery. They will impact your lives. They have little interest in continuing in an environment where they can’t do their work. If you make it impossible to do work in cancer research, you won’t get the work done. And we will pay.”
Photos: Courtesy of Oregon Health & Science University; © Corbis Credit: Dan McCoy Rainbow All Rights Reserved