Last night, the documentary adaption of Cancer: The Emperor of All Maladies began on PBS. Running for a total of six hours over three nights, the film traces cancer from its first known documentation to the cutting edge research being done today.
The film is an intense exploration of the disease, and several times throughout the two hours I had to stop and breathe, just to take in the content. Here are three of those times:
“(In the U.S.) More will die from cancer over the next two years than died in combat in all the wars the United States has ever fought. Combined.”
The film opens with a series of statistics on the devastation cancer has wrought, but for me, none were more gutting than this one—especially since it was followed by a series of clips of U.S. presidents, beginning with Lyndon Johnson, vowing to end cancer once and for all.
It’s a dark note to start out on, made doubly so by the sad irony that the film’s commanding narrator is actor Edward Herrmann, who himself died of brain cancer in 2015. This film was his last project.
"Sometimes people think you're stronger than what you really are."
Lucy Assante uttered these words weeks before the death of her son, Luca.
Young Luca Assante was treated for rhabdomyosarcoma, a rare cancer, with chemo and radiation, and for a time these therapies worked. But sadly, as a result of his treatment he developed leukemia. Treated with a bone marrow transplant for his second cancer, he developed graft vs. host disease. Luca died at six years old.
Lucy does come across as incredibly strong—stoic and tough, she absorbs all manner of difficult news and still manages to smile at her son, and talk with him about normal kid stuff.
“This program contains mature content which may not be suitable for all audiences. Viewer discretion is advised.”
This warning graced the screen just before the opening scene of Cancer: The Emperor of All Maladies. And while you may not consider it a quote from the film, per se, it is the lens through which we begin to view it. It’s also an important way to think about the film’s audience, large portions of which have undoubtedly been personally affected by cancer.
But not all cancer patients and caregivers chose to tune in, as evidence on social media showed. AnneMarie Ciccarella (@chemobrainfog) tweeted: “Tomorrow, I'd like to know how many cancer patients couldn't/wouldn't watch #PTSD #cancerfilm” and blogger Beth Gainer wrote about why she avoided the program: “Unfortunately, one of the Emperors in my world is PTSD and I must take heed.”
As a former caregiver and patient myself, I felt that acutely. Indeed, there were parts of the film that were extremely difficult to watch, even in the more innocuous-seeming historical portions. One image I’ll never forget is of a 4,000 year old Egyptian papyrus. It is a medical document, detailing conditions and treatments. We pan along the ancient document, and are told of a reference to breast cancer. Treatment? “There is none.” I physically shuddered.
Night one of the film was difficult, and unflinching. And like the experience of cancer itself, probably different for everyone. What moments were most poignant for you?
If you missed last night’s episode, it is available for streaming.
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