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'Cancer: The Emperor' review: Ken Burns' latest documentary an historic, human survey

Dr. Sidney Farber, considered the father of modern

Dr. Sidney Farber, considered the father of modern chemotherapy, at left, with colleagues, circa 1950. Credit: Courtesy of Dana Farber Institute

THE DOCUMENTARY "Cancer: The Emperor of All Maladies"

WHEN | WHERE 9 p.m. Monday to Wednesday on WNET/13

WHAT IT'S ABOUT Based on the 2013 Pulitzer Prize-winning book of the same name, by Siddhartha Mukherjee -- who appears on camera throughout -- this film is produced by Ken Burns and Barak Goodman. With extensive interviews and personal stories, the three parts are -- "Magic Bullets" (Monday), about the early search for a cure; "The Blind Men and the Elephant" (Tuesday), which takes the story to targeted therapies; and "Finding an Achilles Heel" (Wednesday), which concludes with immunotherapy.

MY SAY Burns and Goodman take what might be called a holistic approach to their subject, which is to say they try to cover everything. This is an historic, scientific and human survey. It's a sensible approach, but for viewers can be a frustrating one, too.

Here's why: Cancer isn't a "subject" but a universe of near infinite complexity, which has been tackled by some of the world's most brilliant minds. And yet, still . . . no cure, no easy answers, no end in sight. Fold in that human story -- along with the unfathomable emotional toll -- and you quickly realize that six hours amounts to just about six minutes. There's simply not enough time here to satisfactorily cover all of this.

Because cancer affects almost everyone, everyone will also come to this program with different expectations. I wanted science -- lots and lots of science, and a deeper understanding of the Cancer Genome Atlas and oncogenes. But that's just me. You may want to know why certain cancer drugs cost over $100,000. Both topics are addressed, but only superficially.

Those are my complaints. My praise -- this is an intelligent overview, with the consistent and important theme that medical "paradigms" shift and change. What seemed to be a "killer app" procedure 40 years ago -- the "radical mastectomy" as the most obvious example -- turned out to based on a wrong assumption. Skepticism therefore is warranted whenever someone says "Eureka, we've got the cure!"

However, "Cancer's" other important message is that progress continues to be made. Some early paradigms in terms of treatment, medication and care have been abandoned, but "Cancer" at least establishes that better ones have successively taken their place. "Eureka" may be the wrong word, but "hope" is not.

Meanwhile, do read Mukherjee's remarkable book. It covers everything, and in flawless prose.


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