Review: The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer

The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer
The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer by Siddhartha Mukherjee
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A truly beautiful book about what is certainly a terrible and often terrifying collection of illnesses. Our family, like almost all families, has wrestled with cancer and wrestled with the scary and frequently devastating treatments that hope to kill the cancer before they kill the patient. This book provides a rich and illuminating context for those struggles, giving a palpable sense of the diseases and how our understanding and approaches have changed and how they’ve stayed the same. Mukherjee’s story telling is deft and compelling, sharing a complex and often very technical history in a way that remains personal, compelling, and accessible. It at times borders on the poetic, but without ever becoming sentimental or maudlin.

While this is technically about cancer, the book provides valuable insight into the complexities of medical research, whether scientific, mathematical, political, or social. We’ve made huge strides in so many areas of medicine in the last two centuries, but we rarely appreciate the oft tortured, surprising, and complex channels wended along the way. Yet to understand cancer and cancer treatment, and important challenges such as antibiotic resistance, and drug R&D, funding, testing and approval, it’s critical that we have this sort of context.

So most highly recommend; absolutely one of the best books I’ve read.

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I’m officially pissed at Northwest Airlines

Northwest Airlines is officially stupid and refuses to fly me straight back to MSP from Montréal (where I’ve become sick) and instead insists on making a sick person fly through DC to get to Minnesota. And they’re charging me $200 for the privilege. Ugh.

Nothing like faceless bureaucracies to really help a guy out when he’s ill.



Take Northwest Airlines (or Delta or whatever the hell they are at the moment) as a shining non-example.

Last Tuesday I flew to Montréal for GECCO (one of the really big conferences in my research area). I was supposed to fly to DC yesterday for an NSF review panel today and tomorrow. I would then fly back to MSP on Wednesday.

Unfortunately I became quite ill yesterday morning, starting with diarrhea, and then adding vomiting just in case I hadn’t gotten everything out of my system. As a result I took what I thought was the fairly wise decision of not flying to DC for the panel. The one relevant study I found indicated that after surveying 1,000s of people, they only found one would actually wanted to sit for several hours in a small tin can thousands of feet in the air next to someone who was busily ejecting all their gastro-intestinal contents. And that one lucky customer thought they were Napoleon.

So, you might think that I was doing the airline industry a favor by not bravely struggling to the airport, puking at the ticket counter, and racing to the toilet the moment I boarded their flight.

They apparently see it differently.

The folks at the NSF have kindly told me to skip the whole panel thing and go home and recuperate. Most of the panel’s work is being done today, so there’s not much point showing up tomorrow, etc., etc. My insides are behaving today, but I’m still quite weak and run down, so I’m planning to stay here the rest of the day and head home tomorrow.

I called Northwest Airlines to see what we could work out. Twice. Same stupid answer both times.

They insist on flying me back to MSP via DC “because that’s how my original ticket was set up”. I’m sick. I just want to get the hell home. They have a direct flight to MSP from Montréal. Put me on it. Please?


“Can I put you on hold to see what we can work out with ticketing?”


<Polite language that translates to “You’re screwed.”>

And they wanted $200 in penalties for the privilege of six hours of travel instead of two. Oh, and the chance to see the inside of DC National again for a bit. Thanks. Really. Thanks.

200 frickin dollars to put a sick person on the slow boat to Minnesota. This is the finest customer service money can buy, apparently.

I did this twice, with identical results.

I was so pissed the first time that I announced that I was going to buy a one way ticket from some other airline (any other airline) and hung up. I’m generally extremely polite with these people, because they’re powerless drones passing along bad news they have no control over. I suspect on their scale of asshole-ness, I was still really polite, but I did feel a little bit bad about it after I hung up.

A phone call was placed to the center of all wisdom and common sense (aka WeatherGirl), and we discussed the situation. It would in fact cost me over $500 to fly back on another airline, and that had a stop in Philidelphia; the best non-stop was over $800.


Crow was therefore eaten, and I called Northwest back and said I’d take the $200 “deal” (hence the second call).

Ugh again. And to DC I go.

Because of the DC leg, there’s no plausible routing that gets me to MSP for the last (3 hour) shuttle ride back to Morris. The current plan is for my remarkably generous family to drive out to pick me up (7 or 8 hours of their life I don’t get to bill to anyone). Otherwise I’ll start shopping around contacts in the Cities and see if someone will let a sick puppy sleep on a couch tomorrow night and take the shuttle Wednesday.

I’m sure there are a thousand reasons by their bureaucracy “needs” me to go through DC, but none of them make a damn bit of sense. I’ve heard this sort of “logic” before, and it’s the same stuff lazy software developers use to justify why something “can’t be done”, which what they really mean is “We can’t be bothered”.

I suspect the big issue may be that the middle leg (Montréal to DC) is on United, and United is gonna want a pound of flesh from Northwest regardless. So instead of working with me, or trying to work with United, Northwest insists on making United fly me to DC so the corporate accounting plays out in the end.


At least I have a good health care plan. Watching this amazing Bill Moyers interview with Wendell Potter makes one despair for the capitalism that is running rampant across the globe, and all the misfortunates being trodden under foot in the process. In that perspective I’m damn privileged.

I think I’m going to eat some more of the fruit from this morning’s breakfast and take a nap. I’ve got a long day tomorrow and need my rest.

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