Telling Cancer's Story
A Pulitzer Prize-winning book about cancer becomes a documentary after noted filmmaker Ken Burns signs on.
By Marilyn Fenichel
Documentary filmmaker Ken Burns, left, and Siddhartha Mukherjee, author of The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer, share a light moment in Mukherjee’s laboratory in the Irving Cancer Research Center at Columbia University Medical Center in New York City. | Photo by Michael Weschler
When Siddhartha Mukherjee was an oncology fellow at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, he was sometimes unable to answer questions that patients asked about the origins of cancer, how treatments had evolved, and progress in developing new therapies. He looked for a book to guide him, but he couldn’t find one. “I was astonished by this,” says Mukherjee, who is now an assistant professor of medicine at Columbia University in New York City. “Here we were, 4,000 years in one of the most complex, long-standing human projects in history, and we didn’t have a roadmap to where we had come from, where we were going, why we were here, and what was happening next.” Mukherjee decided to write a book to answer these important questions and devoted several years to the project.
The book, The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer
, was published in 2010. It describes the history of cancer by focusing on pioneers who developed surgical procedures and experimented with chemotherapy, as well as scientists who revealed the mechanisms underlying the unchecked growth of cancer cells. Woven through the narrative are stories of activists who raised public awareness of cancer and patients who benefited from treatment advances. In 2011, Mukherjee’s book won the Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction.
Laying the Groundwork for a Documentary
Nearly five years after the book was published, a six-hour documentary based on it will air on television stations in the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) network in spring 2015. Titled Ken Burns Presents “Cancer: The Emperor of All Maladies” A Film by Barak Goodman, the documentary will run in two-hour segments from March 30 to April 1. Filmmaker Ken Burns—who served as executive producer, co-writer and senior creative consultant—describes the film as a way to learn about “the enemy, and because the enemy is within us, it makes [for] a much more fascinating story … one we ought to have the courage to look at and understand, because there is no one, no one who remains untouched by cancer in their lifetime.”
Cancer: The Emperor of All Maladies
came to fruition due to the passion and perseverance of two powerful women in the media: Sharon Percy Rockefeller, the president and CEO of WETA, the PBS station in Washington, D.C., and Laura Ziskin, the founder and former president of Laura Ziskin Pictures and a co-founder of Stand Up To Cancer. Both women had been diagnosed with cancer—Rockefeller in 2005 with stage IIIB colorectal cancer and Ziskin in 2004 with metastatic breast cancer—and both were eager to make a documentary about the disease. In Mukherjee’s book, they found their source material.
“The book had everything,” says Rockefeller. “It was beautifully written and wasn’t overly scientific. It has a focus on patients, so you can get the human stories. But even better, it starts with the history. That gives the context. You think, ‘I’m not alone in this.’ ”
For her own cancer, Rockefeller endured grueling
treatments—an eight-week regimen of chemotherapy given at the same time as daily radiation treatments—and survived. Ziskin was not as fortunate—she died in June 2011. Pam Williams, now president of Laura Ziskin Pictures, remembers that Ziskin’s dream was to make a film that would create a tipping point for cancer research, as An Inconvenient Truth had done for global warming. She says Ziskin wanted to jump-start the conversation and make sure that “people understand that we must make it a priority to conquer this disease.”
Ziskin’s team had already obtained the rights to make a film based on the book and was in discussions with HBO in early 2011 when Rockefeller and Dalton Delan, WETA’s chief programming officer, approached Mukherjee about producing a documentary. Mukherjee explained his earlier commitment to Ziskin, but it was clear he understood the potential reach of public television, Rockefeller says.