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One important fact that will change how you think about cancer

Siddhartha Mukherjee.
Siddhartha Mukherjee.
Frederick M. Brown/Getty

emperor of all maladies

If you think you know something about cancer, Siddhartha Mukherjee's The Emperor of All Maladies will make you think again. The book is filled with insights that will furnish your imagination about the history and future of a scourge that affects nearly all of us, from why we still have no cure to the politicization of the disease, its role in our culture, and how we need to view cancer treatments and prevention.

After reading the book, the one insight that changed how I think about cancer was this: it's not one disease — it's many.

Cancer cells are constantly mutating inside the body, and their genetic footprint changes day after day, week after week. Cancer also affects various parts of the body in unique ways. So one person's lung cancer doesn't look the same as another person's, in the same way that breast cancer looks different from brain cancer.

The implications of this fact are huge. They help explain why we still have no "cure" for cancer, and why the entire notion of a single treatment for this multifaceted disease actually makes no sense. "It transforms the idea of treatment from a static idea to a dynamic idea," says Mukherjee in a new PBS documentary based on his book, which airs this week on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday at 9 pm.

A clip from a new documentary, The Emperor of All Maladies, on why we still have no cancer cure. (Courtesy of PBS)

"Make no mistake," he continues. "[Cancer] is one of the most significant challenges in our history. To imagine that we will find a simple solution to this doesn't do service to the true complexity of the problem." The documentary, and Mukherjee's book, will help you better understand exactly why.

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