Rosentha, Eric T.
Stand Up To Cancer (SU2C) has acquired the film and television rights to The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer, the book by medical oncologist Siddhartha Mukherjee, MD, DPhil (PhD), that was named to several of 2010's Best Books lists within weeks of its publication in November.
Optioning a book by a nonprofit organization is unique, according to Lisa Paulsen, a SU2C cofounder who is President and CEO of the Entertainment Industry Foundation (EIF), the 501(c)(3) not-for-profit philanthropic arm of the TV and film industries that is overseeing the SU2C initiative, which has already produced two multi-network and cable television fundraising and awareness specials in 2008 and 2010.
Dr. Mukherjee's 592-page book (at press time #15 on the New York Times nonfiction Best Seller List and #20 on Amazon's) will provide invaluable source material to what is currently envisioned as a seven-part TV documentary series that SU2C hopes will help demystify cancer to the public.
Laura Ziskin, another SU2C cofounder and producer of numerous film projects including the Spider-Man series, as well as two Academy Award broadcasts, has served as executive producer for both SU2C specials and will wear the same hat for the documentary.
“When looking for source material for a movie—fiction or nonfiction—you dream of a resource where it's all there, and Sid has done the work with this book, and we now have to find an elegant way to translate it to film,” Ms. Ziskin told OT.
Combining the Metaphorical with Science
She added that cancer has always been a metaphor for other things and the book combines the metaphorical with science.
She noted that prior to conceiving SU2C's current live star-studded telecast format (OT, 10/10/10 issue) with its seven other cofounders, her initial impulse had been to produce a documentary about cancer and that she had been looking for the right materials ever since. And then when she read the review of the book in The New Yorker, she knew she wanted to read the book.
“As soon as I arrived at my office and mentioned this, my assistant said that a copy was already on my desk, since the publisher was asking about having some sort of endorsement from Stand Up To Cancer. A lot of what is discussed in the book historically is really at the basis of why Stand Up To Cancer came to be and why it is time for us to do what we are doing.
“The two things that were especially interesting to me were the stories of Sidney Farber and Mary Lasker and how they motivated and pushed the government, but unfortunately we didn't know enough about cancer then, and there was also much more of a disconnect then between the lab and the clinic with therapies.”
So Ms. Ziskin discussed acquisition of the book with her colleagues during their weekly conference and the group decided to contact the author.
Dr. Mukherjee said he had received an email saying that Laura Ziskin was in New York and wanted to meet him.
He had been aware of SU2C for some time, he told OT, not just through its two broadcasts but also via a personal connection: His friend Raymond Wadlow, MD, whom he had known since they began their oncology fellowships together in 2003 at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and Massachusetts General Hospital, is the son of Emily Couric, the Virginia state senator who died in 2001 from pancreatic cancer and was CBS Evening News anchor Katie Couric's older sister.
“Emily and Katie were very close, and Ray and I shared our personal interests in cancer early on, and so I followed Katie's connection with SU2C from the beginning and admired that she came out of her journalistic work to create this organization.
“I also knew about Laura Ziskin and Sherry Lansing [another cofounder who is chair of the Entertainment Industry Foundation] from when I was searching for more information about Stand Up.”
He said he was impressed that the SU2C founders had the capacity to come out of their respective worlds and unite against cancer, and that he liked their mission and the fact that they funded scientists he respected, including Daniel A. Haber, MD, PhD, Director of Massachusetts General Hospital Cancer Center.
Dr. Mukherjee said he had not previously imagined that the book could be a documentary, but that he loved the thought and that SU2C had had the idea, and so slowly over the course of several conversations a plan evolved.
“When Laura brought it to our attention, we thought about what would be the best way to explore this. Would it be a documentary like Waiting for Superman or An Inconvenient Truth? or would it be a multi-part series?,” Ms. Paulsen related. “We‘re hoping that developing the book can help create a tipping point.”
Ms. Ziskin, who is dealing with her second occurrence of breast cancer, said she hoped the series would air within the next 18 months, which would be prior to the third SU2C TV fundraising special, tentatively scheduled for September 2012.
She said she found it very gratifying that people were already starting to call about the project, and that SU2C was looking for a broadcast venue with the broadest reach and biggest audience.
She said the current thinking is to produce one hour about Sydney Farber and Mary Lasker; another on translational research featuring Brian Druker and Dennis Slamon; and a third to tell the story of Atossa, a Persian queen with breast cancer who is mentioned several times in the book.
A Conversation with Siddhartha Mukherjee
Just prior to the second half of his book tour in early January, Siddhartha Mukherjee, MD, DPhil (PhD) talked to OT about the writing of his book. He had already toured the East coast and was about to hit the West coast before heading overseas to Europe and his native India.
The book is now being translated into about a dozen languages, and is already into its sixth hardcover printing in the US.
He explained that the book had begun as a much more modest means of describing his intense oncology fellowship training at Dana-Farber and Mass General in 2003, but then gradually evolved and grew, encompassing what he termed the biography of the emperor of all maladies—cancer.
Siddhartha Mukherjee...Image Tools
Then about a year-and-a-half into writing in 2005, about the time his first daughter was born, he reflected, the idea of writing a “biography” of cancer came to him.
“The view from the trenches about fellowship was a humbling and frightening experience, and then the book became bigger and bigger and came into this form. But some of the interviews were things I had thought about almost 10 years ago when I thought I would write about the Jimmy Fund [Dana-Farber's fundraising program that started in 1948]. Interestingly, I was interested in the Jimmy Fund before I started in oncology, but in 2005 the idea for the book crystalized.”
Dr. Mukherjee said he found the phrase “the emperor of all maladies” handwritten on the frontispiece of an antiquarian book and it struck him as something that described cancer very well, so he borrowed it.
He considered the word biography to be a key element of the title, and although he had thought of using “history” in the subtitle, he found the term inert, and not capturing the visceral quality of the disease.
He said people have had different reactions to the subtitle, with some thinking it was trite, but that he disagrees.
“I think that treating illness as persona is ancient and has deep roots in writing. For instance, Susan Sontag talked extensively about personality and disease, and in fact her quote opens my book. I talk about cancer in a very biological sense, about genes and mutation, and I provide a historical platform…and I‘m recognizing the fact that the experience of cancer for many patients is very visceral. It's like they‘re inhabiting another space, or another person, or they‘ve encountered an altered self, and so this brings it back to the word biography.”
When asked about the literary quality of the book, he said it wasn‘t consciously written that way, but that the narrative quality of medicine is intrinsic to medicine, and that it's not necessary to craft the literature around medicine since medicine is naturally poignant and dramatic, and so it wasn‘t difficult to find poetic qualities about survivorship.
Dr. Mukherjee was born in New Delhi, and came to the states at age 18 to attend Stanford University where he majored in biology and was “very heavy into philosophy.” Following graduation he spent three years at Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar where he received a DPhil in immunology, before enrolling at Harvard Medical School and doing subsequent training in internal medicine and his oncology fellowship at Dana-Farber and Mass General.
In 2009 he joined Columbia University's Herbert Irving Comprehensive Cancer Center as an assistant professor and set up a lab to study acute myeloid leukemia and myelodysplasia.
His research focuses on how the microenvironment can induce cancer, and his clinical work is in myelodysplastic syndrome.
His wife, Sarah Sze, a sculptor and installation artist who teaches at Columbia's School of the Arts, received a MacArthur Fellowship in 2003, the same year he began his oncology fellowship and work on the first phase of his book.
They live in New York City with their two daughters.
—Eric T. Rosenthal
© 2011 Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, Inc.