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Inside the mind of cancer: An interview with Sid Mukherjee

Photo: Thatcher Hullerman Cook

Almost 40 years ago, Richard Nixon declared what soon became known as “the war on cancer,” by signing the National Cancer Act at a White House ceremony in 1971.

“More people each year die of cancer in the United States than all the Americans who lost their lives in World War II,” Nixon said. “This shows us what is at stake. It tells us why I sent a message to the Congress the first of this year which provided for a national commitment for the conquest of cancer.”

Today, the comparison to World War II remains true. About 600,000 Americans, and 7 million people worldwide, will die of cancer this year alone. And the question of whether humanity will ever conquer this tragic disease remains just as open-ended as it was in 1971.

In his new book “The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer,” Sid Mukherjee posits that the disease may just be the “inherent outer limit of our survival.” As he notes at the outset of his book, cancer cells do exactly what regular cells do, just better. They are, as he puts it, “more perfect versions of ourselves.”

But what does it mean to write a “biography” of cancer? And why, after billions of dollars and decades of research, hasn’t there been a definitive account of the history of this disease until now?

Sid Mukherjee — who we first encountered at this year’s Pop Tech conference in Camden, Maine — joins Need to Know to answer those questions in this podcast.