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Stanford alum Siddhartha Mukherjee explores how cancer has changed our culture at the 2018 Stanford Humanities Center Presidential Lecture

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Siddhartha Mukherjee signs a copy of "The Emperor of All Maladies" for a student.
Photo Credit: 
Steve Castillo

In the 2018 Stanford Humanities Center Presidential Lecture in the Humanities and Arts, titled “Welcome to Cancer Land,” Pulitzer Prize-winning physician Siddhartha Mukherjee (BS ’93) showed how genetic research is reshaping our understanding of cancer, our society, and ourselves. Mixing his own research findings with moving stories of the toll cancer takes on individuals and families, Mukherjee reflected on the fearsome predictive power of genetic testing for deadly diseases.

A cancer physician and researcher at Columbia University, Mukherjee has never drawn a hard line between the humanities and sciences. He cited the Stanford undergraduate seminar called “The Humanities of Science” as an inspiration for his medical career. Scientific research might advance medicine, he observed, but those advances derive meaning from knowledge born in the humanities. Insights from his laboratory shape the way he tells stories about medicine, from his epic “biography of cancer,” the 2011 Pulitzer Prize-winning The Emperor of Maladies, to his popular essays on disease, genetics, and technology for publications such as the New Yorker and the New York Times

Mukherjee’s wide-ranging interests across the humanities and sciences make him a “veritable renaissance man” and “master storyteller,” according to Stanford University President Marc Tessier-Lavigne, who introduced Mukherjee at the lecture. Funded by the Office of the President, the annual lecture hosts the most distinguished voices of our time to talk with faculty, students, and the community at large.

“The way we talk about disease is a clue to the way we talk about ourselves and our society,” said Caroline Winterer, director of the Stanford Humanities Center, who invited Mukherjee to give the Presidential Lecture. “Mukherjee is so gifted at showing how scientific revolutions profoundly shape the rest of our culture.”

“Welcome to Cancer Land”

Mukherjee believes that new genetic research linking cancer to heredity has shifted “the locus of cancer as a disease…from the exterior to the interior…from the non-self to the self. “We now see cancer not as an invading organism but as “the enemy is within,” he said.

And because our genes link us not just to our ancestors but to our future selves, “our understanding of the locus of cancer moved from people who have the disease to people who do not yet have it.” Mukherjee called the latter “previvors,” or “survivors who have not developed the disease yet.”

These two developments have ushered us into “Cancer Land,” a society in which early detection of cancer in the name of prevention values human beings in terms of risk. Mukherjee thinks this “previvor mentality” impoverishes our sense of ourselves and our imaginations. “I am not only thinking about my family in their sovereignty, but thinking about them in terms of risk.” 

Cancer, then, is not only “a betrayal of the cells” interpretable as “the betrayal of the self,” it also transforms culture. We no longer see humanity, but “disease.” We see “risks” instead of human bodies and “previvors” instead of people.

With the new perspectives of genetics, Mukherjee’s “Cancer Land” updates Susan Sontag’s landmark Illness as Metaphor (1978) and Barbara Ehrenreich’s 2001 Harper’s essay, “Welcome to Cancerland,” both of which grappled with the institutionalization of cancer in the mid-to-late twentieth century.

“Medicine begins with storytelling”

Earlier in the day, Mukherjee met with undergraduates at the Stanford Humanities Center to talk about his career as both an oncologist and a writer. 

Referring to himself as a “physician writer,” Mukherjee explained that he “write[s] to think.” Writing lets him work through complex ideas and craft narratives about the sciences that are deeply personal, like the “intimate history” of genetics in his most recent book, The Gene: An Intimate History.

“Medicine begins with storytelling,” he wrote in The Emperor of Maladies. “Patients tell stories to describe illness; doctors tell stories to understand it. Science tells its own story to explain diseases.” 

Mukherjee explained to the students that he aimed for three levels of writing in all of his work: meaning, metaphor, and allegory. By meaning he means coherence, that ordinary people should be able to understand the words on the page. Metaphor moves the reader to a deeper level, reminding the reader “of something else,” Mukherjee explained. The third level of writing is allegory, whereby the writer strives to convey a moral in the story.

Students also asked Mukherjee for academic and career advice. He did not plan his trajectory, Mukherjee explained. Instead, he followed his intellectual interests, building a career guided only by his “mish-mash” interdisciplinary pursuits. 

He cautioned students to avoid what he called the two greatest “contagions” plaguing undergraduates today: “entrepreneurship and professionalization.” He urged students to open themselves to learning—to spend their college years reading, thinking, and talking about ideas with their friends and faculty. He said that STEM majors should take classes in the humanities to expand their frameworks for thinking. He credited the humanities for giving him the tools of language, the methods of history, and the philosophical perspectives that have shaped his path-breaking research and writing. 

The best way to be a great writer, he concluded, is to be a great reader.