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If book and Pasadena session are guides, "Emperor" should be full of hope

Inquiring minds want to know: What did you do on your vacation?

I sat on a beach in Mexico reading a four-year-old book about cancer.

Not just any book about cancer. A book, “The Emperor of All Maladies,” by Dr. Siddhartha Mukherjee that won a Pulitzer Prize and is being made into a three-part PBS series with Ken Burns as executive producer.

Admittedly, that doesn’t exactly seem like the most relaxing and comforting thing to do while on vacation.

It was done a little bit by necessity.

You see I had already read two books over the first three days of the vacation. I really wanted to stop reading “Emperor” early because it was clear in the first few chapters that I might have needed a degree in molecular biology to completely understand what was going on.

So I looked for a bookstore near my hotel in Cancun and discovered that reading isn’t high on the agenda of people living or vacationing there. I couldn’t find a bookstore for miles.

So I decided to slug on and read the 470-page "Emperor" even if parts of it seemed to be written in a foreign language.

And I was riveted by the parts I could understand about the war on cancer, the gradual triumphs (and failures) of some doctors and their patients, the shameful way Congress initially dealt with the discovery that smoking causes lung cancer, and the anemic amount of funding for cancer research before a brilliant public relations campaign changed things.

It is an incredibly sad and an incredibly hopeful biography of cancer at the same time.

Cancer certainly remains a hot topic. The CBS magazine show “60 Minutes” Sunday carried an incredible hopeful story about the use of the polio virus to kill a deadly form of brain cancer.

If you think that sounds crazy, so did some of the doctors at Duke University who agreed to do the experiment or trial.

“Emperor” makes clear that some supposedly “crazy” ideas have led to advancements in the treatment of cancer.

I was quickly struck by several Buffalo angles in the book and the documentary, which starts airing on WNED-TV at 9 tonight and continues on Tuesday and Wednesday.

Burns is the executive producer, but the film is directed by Barak Goodman. He is a business partner with John Maggio, the Buffalo born filmmaker who recently gave PBS the documentary series, “The Italian Americans.”

One of the prominent cancer pioneers prominently mentioned in the book – he actually is named in the first page -- is Sidney Farber, who was born in Buffalo in 1903. If the name sounds familiar, his name is part of the famous Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Massachusetts.

Donald Pinkel, an oncologist who spent several years working at Roswell Park Cancer Institute, also is featured in the book. Roswell Park is mentioned several times. A reader sent me a review of the TV series that mentions that Pinkel makes a cameo appearance in the film.

I haven’t seen the film. I came to that conclusion after attending a PBS session in Pasadena, Calif. in which Goodman, Burns and Mukherjee spoke that the film will focus as much or more on the emotional individual stories of cancer patients as it does about the complicated science.

“Ultimately, this was about the cooperation we got from these real people going through this journey who allowed us into their lives, and we had the help, the assistance of these institutions, Johns Hopkins in particular and the Charleston Area Medical Center in West Virginia, who endorsed our project and helped broker the relationships with the patients,” said Goodman. “But these patients were, at their most vulnerable, willing to open their lives to us, and I can’t express how grateful and inspired I am by those folks who, without knowing how their own stories were going to end, let us follow them."

Mukherjee said some early direction was provided by Laura Ziskin and Stand Up For Cancer.

“We had an early meeting, and Laura said, ‘You know, make this a human story. It’s got to be a human story. Bring in everything, the drama,’” he explained.

“You know, will Olivia make it? Will we solve childhood leukemia by 1976? You know, can we use the powers of reason to solve one of the most elemental mysteries about cellular biology that has ever existed? That is, to me, really edge-of-the-seat kind of stuff. Is cancer a genetic disease? Is it a virus? Is it an environmental thing? Why are children who go up and down chimneys in the United Kingdom as chimney sweeps getting this peculiar kind of cancer? And yet why does this child who seems to have no other risk factors suddenly have this awful blood cancer?

“You know, what’s amazing is until 1975 no one knew the answer. And solving that answer, finding that aha moment even captured 30, 40 years later is so breathtaking, you know, you’re sort of saying, 'You really figured that out. That’s amazing.' That’s the kind of thing that — I think the excitement that I think these folks brought to the documentary.”

In the session, Burns acknowledged that he is a little too busy to do all the things he wants to do so Burns now hires quality filmmakers like Goodman to do things he doesn’t have the time to do. Burns’ name helps sell the projects, which is why “Ken Burns Presents” is ahead of the title of “Emperor of All Maladies.”

“Emperor” is narrated by the late Edward Herrmann, who played Lorelai’s dad on “Gilmore Girls,” and has played many historical figures. He died in late December from brain cancer.

“The first day he arrived at our studio to record, he collapsed on the ground, and I had no idea why,” said Goodman. “We propped him up, and we smoothed things down, and he began to narrate, did a magnificent job. He’s a wonderful, wonderful guy. But during the break, he came back into the booth and explained that he not only had cancer, he had terminal cancer, brain cancer.

“We decided together after a lot of soul searching and talking that we would go forward, and he was confident he could finish this and he could do this. It was, to him, going to be the capstone. He felt it was appropriate that this be his final project. And even while he and his wife were trying this and that treatment, I think they were reconciled to the fact that he wasn’t going to make it. … I can’t tell you how hard he pushed to get this done and get this done right, and his narration is terrific. He was and is such an inspiration to me as a human being, just a remarkable guy. So we all felt privileged that he could do this.”

As sad as the story about Herrmann was, the panelists also wanted to emphasize the series that he narrated is loaded with hope.

“This series is hopeful,” said Goodman. “The message of the series is that we are in a new place. There’s a revolution that’s happened in the last 30 to 40 years in understanding this disease, this family of diseases. The pace of discovery in the last three decades has been astonishing and outshone the pace of discovery for the previous century. So something has happened. A Rubicon has been crossed.”

He seemed to realize that another Rubicon needs to be crossed to get viewers to the tent to deal with what could be a difficult story to watch.

“Ken’s name won’t hurt,” said Goodman. “But I hope that people will just get over that threshold, because once they’re in the tent, once they begin to watch, I think that they’ll be carried, A, by the narrative and the suspense and the discoveries that Sid has talked about and, B, by this overwhelming sense that we are definitely getting somewhere and that this disease will look far different for our children and our grandchildren than it does for us right now.”

And now back to the beach.

As I read the final pages of “Emperor of All Maladies,” some cigarette smoke from nearby fellow vacationers disturbed the beauty and serenity of reading a book on the beach – even a book on cancer.

I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised. The book notes that cigarette companies are making deals with foreign countries like Mexico to keep their business strong in the face of reduced smoking in the States now that we know how harmful smoking is.

I briefly toyed with the idea of handing the book to the couple to remind them of the dangers of what they were doing to their bodies and the ugly deaths they may face.

But I thought better of it because it might have been taken in the wrong way. They are actually part of the audience that one would hope would watch the PBS series in high numbers starting tonight.

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