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Picking Up Where the Film Leaves Off

Patient advocates find hope and inspiration in Cancer: The Emperor of All Maladies. By Marci A. Landsmann

The three-part series, Cancer: The Emperor of All Maladies, on PBS was long anticipated by advocates dedicated to advancing the understanding of cancer and providing patient support. The film, based on the Pulitzer-prize winning book The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer by Siddhartha Mukherjee, aired from March 30 through April 1.

Six-year-old Emily Whitehead was the first child to enroll in a clinical trial for a new T-cell therapy in 2012. | ​Photo by Ark Media
Weaving the stories of scientists and advocates with present-day doctors and patients, the documentary illustrates the progress and setbacks in finding effective treatments for cancer. “[Cancer] has existed throughout time and different generations of people have tried to cure it or deal with it in some way and have failed,” says Catherine Ormerod, the vice president of programs and partnerships at Living Beyond Breast Cancer, an advocacy organization in Bala Cynwyd, Pennsylvania. “It is a very human story, but it is also a mystery. The film did a good job of plucking out the major story lines [from the book]—by focusing on scientists and the mystery itself as well as the human stories.”

For those who have been through a cancer diagnosis and treatment, the honesty of behind-closed-door conversations between oncologists and patients facing difficult decisions was striking. “I think survivors we’ve spoken to most felt a real sense of community and kinship with those who were very brave and told their stories [on the film],” says Meghan Gutierrez, the chief executive officer of the Lymphoma Research Foundation in New York City. The raw honesty in the patient-physician interactions left a strong impression on Gutierrez, especially since the film included some patients who lived after treatment and others who did not.

Despite the difficult subject matter, Tim Turnham, the executive director of the Melanoma Research Foundation, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit, found the overall message of the documentary hopeful.

“The film really ended by saying … that we are going to see more rapid progress in the next two decades than we’ve seen in the last five decades because of the foundation that has been laid. That, to me, is a hopeful message for the cancer community—even though it may not be as hopeful for a single cancer patient who doesn’t have two decades to wait,” says Turnham, referring to new therapies, including immunotherapy drugs such as Yervoy (ipilimumab), which has allowed some patients with metastatic melanoma to see their tumors shrink and sometimes disappear. “Right now, at least in the melanoma space, we’ve seen this incredible unfolding of new developments and new treatments, but for the 15 years before that, that just wasn’t the case,” says Turnham.

The film describes the work of pathologist Sidney Farber, who studied and treated childhood cancer patients in the 1950s. While very few of Farber’s leukemia patients achieved long-term remission, today a large number of childhood cancers can be treated effectively. For example, 85 percent of patients with acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) live five years or longer today—largely being treated with chemotherapy. However, the film followed Emily Whitehead, a 6-year-old child whose ALL became resistant to chemotherapy. She was the first child to enroll in a clinical trial for a new T-cell therapy in 2012. She is cancer-free after undergoing a grueling treatment that genetically modified Whitehead’s own T cells to attack her cancer.

“What was exciting was … the film begins with leukemia and ends with leukemia and so much progress has been made,” says Lee Greenberger, the chief scientific officer of the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society in White Plains, New York.

The documentary illustrates the colossal task of masterminding new therapies for so many types of cancer—cancer that was once thought to be one disease with one cure. The mapping of the cancer genome atlas has also opened the door for dramatic progress in the near term, researchers in the film said. “Many believe it is just a matter of time,” the narrator Edward Hermann states in the film. Hermann died of brain cancer on Dec. 31, 2014.

For advocates, the film also provided another springboard for a broader discussion on topics such as survivorship support, palliative care and clinical trial enrollment. “It provides a wonderful centerpiece for a national discussion and other cancer organizations to talk about what’s important going forward,” says Ormerod, who plans to create future programming around the film.

The American Association for Cancer Research (AACR), publisher of Cancer Today, was a supporter of the film.

Marci A. Landsmann is the  editor of Cancer Today.


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