Cancer: The Emperor of All Maladies

Cancer: The Emperor of All Maladies
Katie Couric
·Global Anchor

By Katie Couric

All of us know someone who has been affected by cancer. In 1997, I had a great career, a wonderful husband and two beautiful young daughters, who were 5 and 1. In an instant, everything changed. That’s what cancer does, it changes everything in an instant.

My husband, Jay, was diagnosed with stage IV colon cancer. Nine months later, he died. He was 42.

Three years after that, my sister, Emily, who had read my eulogy for me at Jay’s funeral, was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. She lost her battle on Oct. 18, 2001. She was 54.

This is why, like so many before me, I’ve become a crusader against cancer. I experienced what so many families have experienced: the terrifying, numbing impact of a cancer diagnosis; the fear of a future without that person who means the world to you; and the feeling that you have a vice around your heart 24/7 and the anguish in realizing that there is nothing anyone can do. At first, I focused on colon cancer, even undergoing a colonoscopy on national television. Then I decided I needed to expand my cancer advocacy portfolio and do something to bring attention to the often-devastating consequences of other forms of the disease.


So in 2008, I teamed up with eight other women in entertainment and media to launch Stand Up to Cancer (SU2C), an initiative, really a movement under the auspices of the Entertainment Industry Foundation (EIF). SU2C raises funds for innovative research done by “Dream Teams” of scientists from a cross section of institutions that are required to work together. Often, cancer research is done in silos, with scientists competing, not collaborating. We believed it was time to change that paradigm and pool our scientific resources and brainpower.   

One of the women in that group was the legendary film producer Laura Ziskin, who battled breast cancer for seven years until her death in 2011. Laura, the heart and soul of SU2C, often called herself an “impatient patient.” She couldn’t understand why the prospects for a woman with her type of breast cancer were no better than they had been 40 years earlier. She refused to accept the status quo, and she lent that sense of urgency to everything SU2C did.

Since she was diagnosed in 2004, Laura had dreamed of producing a documentary on cancer. In the fall of 2010, Laura came across a book that she felt would be an ideal source for the documentary she had long-envisioned. It was “The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer” by Siddhartha Mukherjee, a young oncologist and researcher at Columbia University.

Talking about the inspiration for the book, Mukherjee recalls, “One day, I had a patient who was going through chemotherapy who came to me and said, ‘I'm going to go on with what I’m doing, but I need you to tell me what it is that I’m fighting.’ And it was a moment for me in which I said, ‘Wait a second, I can’t refer you to a book or a film or some material that I can tell you which tells you the entire story.’ And so I thought to myself, ‘Well, then maybe I should write that story myself.’”
It helped another patient understand her disease better as well. After devouring an advance copy of the book in one day, Laura urged EIF to obtain the film and TV rights, which it did in late 2010.

Around the same time, Sharon Rockefeller, president and CEO of WETA, Washington, D.C.’s public broadcasting station, had also read the book while undergoing treatment for cancer herself at Johns Hopkins Hospital. She connected with Laura in early 2011, and planning on the documentary began soon after.
Sharon and WETA also brought famed documentarian Ken Burns into the fold. Ken, whose mother struggled with cancer for many years before it took her life when he was only 11 years old, quickly signed on as executive producer.
I only wish Laura could have seen her dream finally come to fruition. She would be thrilled with the finished product, which is brilliant, compelling and extraordinarily moving. “Ken Burns Presents Cancer: The Emperor of All Maladies, a film by Barak Goodman,” a six-hour, three-part documentary series, will air on PBS on March 30, 31 and April 1. I sat down with Ken Burns and Dr. Siddhartha Mukherjee to talk about the road from first draft to final cut.