The Cancer Chronicles

George Johnson

Why I looked at this book

This book is a contender for the 2014 Royal Society Winton Prize for Science Books, but I am also interested in what Johnson has to say about recent advances in cancer research - what can we hope for in the next few years?

First impressions

The book starts with an explanation of how studies of dinosaur fossils have indicated the effects of cancer, showing that the disease goes back a long way. It's interesting material, but I felt that it was a bit long winded - hopefully it will improve as it gets going. Chapter 2 tells of how the author's wife was diagnosed with cancer (which she survived) despite doing all the right things diet-wise. I felt that this meant Johnson was a bit negative about what you can do to avoid cancer - of course everyone is at risk, but lifestyle does make a difference.

Main review

As the book progresses it moves away from the long-windedness of the first chapter. In fact I felt rather irritated that after the number of pages given to driving around to look at dinosaur bones, important topics such as the p53 protein only merit a paragraph or too. But this isn't really a book for those wanting to understand the basics of cancer, it's more of a 'big picture' book. Johnson clearly wanted to find out as much as possible about the disease, and so read books, went to seminars and talked to scientists whenever he got the chance. This book tells the story of his encounters, combined with describing how the treatment of his wife's cancer progressed, rather than trying to distill this information in a book about cancer. But of course we do learn a lot about cancer in the process, and there are plenty of notes at the end for those wanting to find out more.

On the issue of what you can do to avoid cancer, this book makes a point which I hadn't thought about before: most cancers are linked to a person's environment, but most likely to a whole range of small effects (cancers tend to need several mutations to occur to get going). Studies looking at individual causes frequently give inconclusive results, so trying to pinpoint blame tends to lead nowhere.

Whether cancer has become part of your life or whether it is still one of those scary things which you hope will never happen to you it is useful to find out about someone who has fought the disease and come out the other end. This book lets you do that, as well as letting you know about some of the huge amount of research going on to tackle cancer. It wouldn't be my choice as the winner of the 2014 Winton prize, but I think that it deservedly made the shortlist.

Reviews Elsewhere

The Amazon Reviews are largely positive, a bit less so at Goodreads. Some of the negative ones don't like the way the book jumps from one topic to another and some recommend The Emperor of all Maladies by Siddhartha Mukherjee instead.

Some reviewers disliked bits that I didn't consider important, for instance Robert C. Young at the Oncology Times who saw the comments on the lavish food provided at some events as a rant against the oncology profession and Nicholas Blincoe at the Telegraph who gave it just 3 stars

There are also detailed reviews of the book at the Boston Globe and the New York Times