The Best Books About Cancer

Clockwise from top left, "The Truth In Small Doses," by Clifton Leaf; "Toms River," by Dan Fagin; "p53: The Gene That Cracked the Cancer Code," by Sue Armstrong; "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks," by Rebecca Skloot; "Heal," by Arlene Weintraub; and "The Emperor of All Maladies," by Siddhartha Mukherjee. Newsweek

Cancer is a tragedy, but literature about cancer is frequently a triumph. The field is essentially boundless, since cancer touches upon so much of the human experience, from family history to public health. In some of the fine works below, cancer is not only the unregulated division of cells but also a frightening metaphor for life on Earth, always subject to cellular chance, unpredictable and, often, resistant to our best efforts.

The Emperor of All Maladies, by Siddhartha Mukherjee. Scribner

The Emperor of All Maladies, Siddhartha Mukherjee.

Written by a practicing oncologist, this history of cancer is at once authoritative and humane, moving through thousands of years of human history in trying to understand the disease. You get, at once, a view of the battlefield and of the brilliance of those engaged in the fight.

Zoobiquity, Barbara Natterson-Horowitz and Kathryn Bowers. Vintage

Zoobiquity, Barbara Natterson-Horowitz & Kathryn Bowers.

This book is predicated on a joke: What do you call a veterinarian that can only treat one species? A physician. Truth is, animals have plenty to teach us about human health, as the cardiologist Natterson-Horowitz and science writer Bowers persuasively argue here. Only hubris prevents us from learning from other creatures.

Toms River, by Dan Fagin. Island Press

Toms River, Dan Fagin.

Toms River, a beach town in New Jersey, is infamous for a childhood cancer cluster that developed here in the second half of the 20th century. The culprits were a local chemical plant as well as two Holocaust survivors who allowed their failing farm to be used as a toxic dump. The victims were local children who did nothing more than drink the local water, which was tainted with a number of carcinogens.

In a narrative as riveting as any whodunit, Fagin shows how cancer is an almost inevitable by-product of an industrialized society.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot. Broadway Books

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Rebecca Skloot.

The HeLa cell line has been so central to medical research for so long that few questioned its origin until Skloot came along. In one of the most acclaimed and influential works of popular science in recent memory, she traces this hardy strain of cell to a black woman who died of cervical cancer in 1951. If not for this book (and earlier efforts of a smaller scale), the immortal Lacks might have been forgotten.

The Truth In Small Doses, by Clifton Leaf. Simon & Schuster

The Truth in Small Doses, Clifton Leaf.

A ferocious call to action, backed up by both data and experience. Leaf, an editor at Fortune, suffered from cancer as a child. As an adult writing about business, he despairs at the slow pace of research, the willingness to play it safe when millions of lives are at stake and our inability to defeat this dreaded illness.

Heal, by Arlene Weintraub. ECW Press

Heal, Arlene Weintraub.

A new book stems from a truth many a dog owner knows: Man's best friend is deeply susceptible to cancer. Weintraub discusses both human and canine varieties of the disease, her curiosity informed by a deeply personal pain: The author's sister succumbed to gastric cancer at 47.

p53: The Gene That Cracked the Cancer Code, by Sue Armstrong. Bloomsbury USA

p53: The Gene that Cracked the Cancer Code, Sue Armstrong.

Armstrong tells the history of "the guardian of the genome," the gene TP53. Without it, cancer would run wild. We only have two copies of the gene, which leaves us exposed to cancer's assaults. But considering that there are 37.2 trillion cells in the human body, TP53 does a marvelous job of keeping cancer in check.