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Poetically Inspired by the Emperor of all Maladies

September 30, 2013 | Brian Brewer

I was attending a lovely evening of music and poetry a few weeks back. In between sets of music and performance art, a man named Ed Luhrs took the stage and what he was about to read completely took me by surprise. He began by talking about The Emperor of All Maladies, a best-selling compendium of the history of cancer and cancer treatment. The book had moved Ed so much that he was inspired to write a poem based on it. After he recited it, I approached him and asked him if it was okay to publish it here on the CRI blog. He said it was. So, published in its entirety, is Ed's poem.

Mountains Beyond Mountains
In Tribute to Siddharta Mukherjee


The body, resilient in all lines
of defense except one,
begins to utter hermetic code
in some remote corner of the abdomen,
the lung, the pancreas, the breast -
wherever it is, for reasons thousandfold
and unseen, a revolution takes place.
Through innumerable forms and effects,
inextricably arisen from the human genome,
the same pattern emerges:
a small gathering of cells achieve independence
from the norms surrounding them.
The body's growth-inhibition signals
are discarded as archaic litanies,
which, having formerly ascribed
to the religion of programmed cell death,
now march to a tune of limitless potential.
In this regime, singular masses,
grape-like clusters, or spindle-shaped strands
undergo limitless, shifting replication.
The newly arisen outpost
speaks a broken dialect of messages
within the very protein structures
that regulate the surrounding tissue.
An order is given that blood be drawn;
vessels engender continued growth
to the affected area, and then,
having securely established its power base,
a rapid invasion spreads to remote organs
in new and newer terrifying forms.


mustard gas chemotherapy
the entire removal of the breast
and surrounding muscle
haphazard chemicals
and radical surgeries
done to save lives
while destroying them
children in a clinic
men and women
on the precipice of hope
defined by illness
waking eating waiting
trying to listen for opinions
trying to understand probability
poised ready unprepared
contemplating the wall
writing letters to the HMO
calling the HMO
after the letters are ignored
political lobbyists
public platitudes
genetic research
protein therapy
holistic understanding
fake medical degrees
in tropical locations
The Jimmy Fund
Mary Lasker
Sidney Farber
the list grows
the list goes on
and the question remains
how to treat
a suffering human being
with compassion and dignity


Then there is the matter
of treating a moving target.
Mapping the human genome,
the equivalent of walking on water,
would also be the miracle of Lazarus
except for the tenacity
of the disease to resurface.
Patch a fix. A new leak rises.
Celebrate remission, and an ominous pain
signals renewed growth.
It is, as Mukherjee describes,
the story of Atossa, Queen of Persia,
and her first suffering,
which shows us the lengths
we've traveled.
What was once excised
by firebrand and blade
is now being treated,
in many cases, on the molecular level,
using technologies targeting switches
that regulate normal cell growth.
But there are switches beyond switches,
and mountains beyond mountains,
leaving us the upward path
on which to push our burdens.
We find no all-encompassing cure;
rather, several strands of illumination,
which give some small hope
for what once seemed so utterly hopeless.

- Ed Luhrs

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