Of Schemes and Memes Blog

Book 6: The Cancer Chronicles: Unlocking Medicine’s Deepest Mystery by George Johnson (2014 Royal Society Winton Prize for Science Books)

Sarah’s Synopsis – The Cancer Chronicles: Unlocking Medicine’s Deepest Mystery by George Johnson

CancerCancer is a disease that inspires dread in many people. Most of us have had some experience of it or, at the very least, have read one of the myriad articles in the press about the latest cause or cure. George Johnson’s The Cancer Chronicles cuts through all of the noise and confusion, and presents a fascinating, often frightening, but ultimately empowering, account of the history of cancer and the human quest to understand it.

The book begins millions of years ago, in the late Jurassic, when cancer stalked the dinosaurs. Today, the only remnants of these ancient battles are the scars and bone tumours on their fossilised remains. Johnson brings these battles to life with stories such as that of a nine metre Gorgosaurus with what appears to be a bone tumour lodged in its brain. The tumour is in an area normally associated with motor control and researchers have suggested that the battered condition of its skeleton may be a result of the location of the tumour, which caused the dinosaur to suffer numerous falls. A cancer so old, which rendered a huge carnivore helpless, makes it clear that this disease is not just a human condition. In fact, it becomes apparent that all kinds of dinosaurs were afflicted by cancer and that it affects all extant animals too; domesticated animals more than their wild counterparts, and humans most of all.

In terms of what causes cancer, Johnson describes the major contributors – smoking, obesity and ageing – those with a large enough effect (but still a very small one) to consider doing something about. He also highlights the existence of countless other environmental factors and various genetic weaknesses and strengths that can influence an individual’s likelihood of developing cancer. Factors like sunlight exposure and consumption of red meat, he notes, you can try to account for, but when it comes to radon gas and all the other invisible carcinogens, who knows when or how much a person is exposed to in a lifetime? According to The Cancer Chronicles, there are approximately 10 trillion cells in the human body, almost 4 million of which are dividing every second, and all it takes is one “isolated act of betrayal”, one cell going rogue, to cause cancer. As Johnson puts it “you could live your life with a calculator”.

The deeper I delved into The Cancer Chronicles the more amazed I became at the vast history and breadth of this disease, which is both a fundamental consequence of being a multicellular organism and also the beginning of something almost alien. Just as you feel like you might get lost in the enormity of it all, you are brought back to Earth by the story of Nancy, Johnson’s wife, and her diagnosis and personal struggle with the disease. Her story, which spurred Johnson’s quest to understand cancer, weaves in and out of the book and serves to illustrate the effect of the disease on people and their loved ones. The helplessness and the waiting, along with the suffering endured while receiving treatment and the hope that it will work, are universal consequences of the human experience of cancer and the book would be incomplete without featuring them.

I came away from reading The Cancer Chronicles with a feeling that we are not as helpless in the face of cancer as I thought and that, despite its relentless march through history, we are, for the first time, getting to a point where we can do something to manage it. Like the tortoise, it seems that our slow steady progress will get us there eventually. In the meantime, the best we can do is try not to smoke, avoid becoming obese and enjoy life.


Sarah Lahert is a press officGTrBq_AG_400x400er with Nature Publishing Group and is the most recent addition to the press team, having moved to the UK from Ireland earlier this year. In her previous life she worked for a corporate biotechnology company and briefly in the Irish senate. Aside from science, she is interested in politics and foreign affairs, and also likes to paint when the mood takes her.


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