Pulitzer winner speaks on history of cancer

Stories of triumph or tragedy are common among those with cancer, but Tuesday night USF welcomed an author who wrote the story of the disease itself and won a Pulitzer Prize as a result.

Siddhartha Mukherjee is an oncologist, a professor at Columbia University and the author of “The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer,” which won a 2011 Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction writing. He was the first s peaker in the College of Arts and Sciences’ Frontier Forum lecture series.

The lecture, held in the new Interdisciplinary Sciences Building Auditorium, suited USF as the college is actively searching for ways to treat and cure cancer, said College of Arts and Sciences Dean Eric Eisenberg, who introduced the author.

“One in two men will be affected by cancer in their lifetimes, and one in three women and one in four of us will die of cancer,” Mukherjee said. “You can only tell very large stories by telling very small stories.”

He said Sidney Farber, a pathologist, or “a doctor of the dead.” was the narrator of his book. Mukherjee retold a story from the 1950s to illustrate a past image of cancer’s perception.

“A woman who calls up the New York Times and says she’d like to place an advertisement (for a support group) for survivors of breast cancer,” he said. “Long pause on the phone and the society editor of the New York Times gets on the line and says, ‘Sorry, we can’t have the words “breast” and “cancer” in the New York Times, so why don’t we say this is a survivors’ group for women with diseases of the chest wall?’ and this was 1950, so Sidney Farber, in that (time), knew of cancer only as a disease that was unspoken about.”

One of the most important developments he showed in his book, he said, was the realization that cancer cells are the result of overgrowing cells that cause tumors.

“This was the realization that sent a deep chill through biology in the 1970s,” he said. “The same genes that allow normal cells to grow – if you disrupt these very same genes, you unleash cancer.”

Today, the new landscape of cancer research revolves around ideas first formulated by Farber, Mukherjee said.

“The problem with cancer is they are the very same cells that allow us to grow,” he said “If you can somehow find the genes that are abnormal cancer cells, then you could spare normal cells.”

Mukherjee’s lecture will be followed by former Director of United States Citizenship and Immigration Services Emilio Gonzalez on Nov. 9 and “Freakonomics” co-author Stephen Dubner on Feb. 16. The lecture series invites international scholars to speak on issues of public concern, Eisenberg said.

“It used to be that research universities used to be isolated from the communities from where they were located,” Eisenberg said. “In 2010, the University expanded its commitment to community engagement by creating this series.”

Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn attended the lecture to deliver an introductory speech and is among the listed supporters of the series.