Review: Two books about cancer – Rebel Cell by Kat Arney and The First Cell by Azra Raza


five decades ago Anand on the screen, cancer has become the emperor of all diseases with approximately 18 million new cases diagnosed each year. In a decade, the global burden is expected to reach 21 million new cases of cancer, of which no less than 13 million will succumb. Tragically, from Anand The inspiring story of celebrating life amid brutal certainty remains perhaps the only mantra for anyone who may have to navigate their own journey through the dreaded disease.

The subject is dark, like rebel cell unravels the inevitability of evolution and The first cell highlights our brutal standoff with the Big C. Cancer has come to rule the host with despotic autocracy, and the fatal aspect is that a cancer patient is as likely to die of it today than it would have been 50 years ago. Unlike other human illnesses, when it comes to cancer, we are literally dealing with death. “We have cancer because we can’t avoid it,” writes award-winning science journalist Kat Arney, “because there’s a bug in the system of life itself.” Renowned oncologist Azra Raza agrees that cancer is no one’s fault; it exists because multicellularity exists. The cancer cell is not a foreign invader but a double agent, hardwired into basic life processes to outsmart our existence. Literally, it’s a cell that wants to live longer than the whole human body. Why is this so; and how can this be changed?

368pp, ₹599; Harper Collins

These two books ask the same question. There are no easy answers. The authors pack a lot: there’s a harrowing depiction of the loss of loved ones, extremely detailed descriptions of failed prescriptions, and grim tales of excruciating side effects that leave patients hanging between life and death. The story of cancer is a story of treatment and mutation, of hope and despair, of life and death. With cancer moving too often to get out of trouble, Arney argues that everything we know about cancer may be wrong. Having lost her husband to cancer, Raza laments the pharmaceutical industry’s stubborn insistence on slashing, poisoning, and burns (surgery, chemo, and radiation) as magic strategies.

rebel cell offers insight into a new way of thinking about what cancer really is, where it came from, where it’s headed, and how we can stop it. Although mortality is ubiquitous, this is a book that investigates life in its messy glory. The first cell goes further by exploring cancer through medical, scientific and cultural lenses. Told through the disoriented lives of those who fail treatment, the book questions the unshakable hubris of modern science that proclaims its ability to cure a disease as complex as cancer. The landscape of cancer is much worse in reality. Only 5% of effective drugs extend patients’ lives by months at a cost of millions of dollars. Die from the disease or die from the treatment, the choice is indeed limited.

With exquisite subtlety and insight, Raza navigates the two poles of failed treatment and unfathomable grief with poetic resilience. As a clinical researcher, treating oncologist and cancer widow, Raza blames the cancer industry and her fellow oncologists for underreporting treatment failure. Why are both reluctant to tell the stories of the majority dying? With failures outnumbering successes, Cancer stories need not be exaggerated to portray the drama of pain and grueling decisions. Knowing well that every criticism applies as much to her as it does to her colleagues, Raza does not mince words to conclude that unless there is more research into identifying earlier markers of early cancer cells , the cancer paradigm will soon reach a grotesque, unrecognizable and destabilized end point.

416pp, Rs.1,747; Weidenfeld and Nicolson

Scientific journal Nature considered The first cell an incisive critique-memoir. Indeed, it is. Written with empathy and angst and featuring deeply personalized interactions with patients and families, this is a must-have treatise on a disease each of us has a one in two chance of contracting. Although there has been an improvement in cancer mortality due to early detection, there have been no significant advances in the treatment of metastatic cancers. A Columbia University professor of medicine and practicing oncologist, Raza speaks to our collective anxieties as a species as well as our growing vulnerabilities. This is responsible writing at its best.

There is no denying that we need to be smarter to defeat such a cunning enemy. The traditional cancer treatment strategy has already reached its maximum potential, because each cancer evolves in a unique way. According to the UK advocacy group Die for a cure, “At the current rate of progress, it would take at least 1,778 years to see a 20-year improvement in survival for the 200 known types of cancer.” It is imperative that cancer research move from studying animals to studying humans, and also move from chasing the last cancerous cell to developing the means to detect the first.

The first cell is no ordinary book of science and medicine. Written with the sensitivity of a poet (Raza’s first book was Ghalib: epistemologies of elegance) and a deep compassion for other beings, Raza questions the profit that has come to rule our lives by first flooding our environment with carcinogens and then making money treating it. The world must escape this vicious circle. Only the priority given to prevention and early detection can help us overcome this daunting enigma. The writing on the wall is clear.

Sudhirendar Sharma is a freelance writer, researcher and scholar.


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