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Cancer Chronicles: A three-part documentary series on the deadly disease

Cancer: The Emperor of All Maladies, adapted from Siddhartha Mukherjee’s Pulitzer-winning novel, is a three-part documentary series.

cancer chronicles, pulitzer prize, siddharth mukherjee, Cancer: The Emperor of All Maladies Burns is the executive producer of this three-part, six-hour documentary series, which has been adapted from Siddhartha Mukherjee’s 2010 Pulitzer-winning book, The Emperor of All Maladies.

One in two men, one in three women and one in 300 children will get some form of cancer in their lifetime. When a close friend, who had survived colon cancer, shared these alarming statistics with Ken Burns, it sparked the idea for Cancer: The Emperor of All Maladies. Burns is the executive producer of the three-part, six-hour documentary series, which has been adapted from Siddhartha Mukherjee’s 2010 Pultizer-winning book, The Emperor of All Maladies. The series was aired on PBS last week in the US to a great response.

For Burns, who embarked on the project in 2011, this documentary was as close to the bone as a film could get – he had lost his mother to breast cancer when he was 11. When he first read Mukherjee’s deeply-researched and lyrically-narrated book, he found it a “riveting rollercoaster of a detective story”, as he says in the film. “The history of science, and in this case, the history of cancer and the efforts to fight the disease had all of the drama and power that we have found in other stories,” says Burns.

Directed by Barak Goodman, the series like the book, tells the comprehensive story of cancer, from its first description in an ancient Egyptian scroll to the gleaming laboratories of modern-day research institutions. Goodman says he had to adopt a radically different approach for the project, a departure from his previous historical films which include Scottsboro: An American Tragedy (2000) and Clinton (2012). They roped in an animator to make the content comprehensible for a TV audience. It also uses archival footage, images, newsreels and intersperses the narrative with moving accounts of patients battling the disease, and others who have conquered it.

Among these moving accounts is the story of Suleika Jaoud who chronicled her battle with leukemia in an Emmy award-winning column for the New York Times. Then there is Cindy Campbell, who started The Muddy Puddles project – an organisation that celebrates life by seeking fun in the little things – after she lost her son at the age of five to cancer.

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Following the lives of patients so closely, there were times when Goodman questioned how much should make it to the film. The story of six-year-old Luca Assante, who died during production, is one such example. “We knew how unlikely he is to survive so we didn’t feel the need to follow his trajectory till death. There was another beautiful scene where a woman on her deathbed got married, there was a violin playing in the background, but it all felt very wrong to include in the film,” adds Goodman.

Cancer is grim but the documentary is optimistic in its approach. Split into three parts, the first segment, Magic Bullets, centres on the story of Sidney Farber, the father of chemotherapy, and how it has saved millions of lives. The second, The Blind Men and the Elephant, follows how the world has made many strides forward in fighting the disease since Richard Nixon’s declaration of ‘war on cancer’ in 1971. The final part, Finding an Achilles Heel, brims with optimism, as scientists talk about making headway in cracking the mystery of the malignant cell. The documentary has also made room to include advances in cancer research since 2010, the year the book was published. However, the story of Dr Surendra Shastri, who discovered the the use of vinegar as a screening tool for cervical cancer, in place of the expensive pap smear, did not make the final cut.

Dedicated to his mother, Burns says the film is their contribution to starting a conversation about cancer and in doing so, hopefully contribute further to the research. Having been screened at various cancer centres in the States, the team is in talks to take it to other countries soon. “We will also need to update the series as more breakthroughs emerge, so there will be a follow-up a few years from now,” says Goodman.


Yet with all the hope, the reality of the disease does not leave the film, nor was it forgotten by its team. The film’s narrator, actor Edward Hermann, died of brain cancer in December last year. Hermann, who had also worked with Burns on his last project, broke the news of his terminal illness on the first day he came on board, and persevered to complete the film. “Hermann’s contribution, despite being fully aware of his illness was a gift, to us and to everyone else. I’m happy that this work will be part of his legacy,” says Burns.

First published on: 08-04-2015 at 12:00:48 am
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