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New Cancer Documentary Sheds Light on Treatment Advances, Patient Lives

“Her name was Melissa,” Dr. Bert Vogelstein recounts to the packed auditorium. He’s talking about his first patient as a pediatric resident at Johns Hopkins nearly 40 years ago. “I still remember to this day her parents asking me why this happened to their daughter.”

Melissa was a young child who was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL), a cancer of the blood and bone marrow. Fresh into his training, Dr. Vogelstein was tasked to treat an enduring disease. “We had no idea back in 1975 what caused leukemia; it was a black box.”

woman holding her child and his toy, while he kisses her on the cheak.
Image courtesy of Ark Media

In truth, patients such as Melissa are just one of hundreds of thousands over the world fighting cancer. And it’s these patients that are the focus of the upcoming documentary presented by renowned Emmy award-winning director Ken Burns, Cancer: The Emperor of All Maladies.

The six-part documentary series is based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning book, The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer, by Siddharta Mukherjee, M.D., Ph.D, an oncologist at Columbia University. The documentary was filmed primarily at the Sidney Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center at Johns Hopkins Medicine in Baltimore, Md., and follows the lives of real patients and their individual battles against cancer. The film also chronicles the history of cancer, current treatments and the future of conquering the disease.

In preparation for its release, patients, doctors and researchers at the Johns Hopkins Hospital were treated to a sneak preview of the film on Tuesday, March 23. The preview was followed by a panel of acclaimed members, including author Dr. Mukherjee; Oscar-nominated director Barak Goodman; Margaret Foti, Ph.D., M.D. (hc), CEO of the American Association of Cancer Research; Lori Wilson of Howard University, a cancer survivor and surgical oncologist whose story is featured in the film; and Bert Vogelstein, M.D., and Kenneth Kinzler, Ph.D., co-directors of the Ludwig Center at the Kimmel Cancer Center.

The panel, which was moderated by Kimmel Cancer Center director William Nelson, M.D., Ph.D., highlighted the challenge of making the film, portraying patients on screen and the personal struggles of the doctors and patients fighting cancer.

Public reception of the screening has been nothing short of enthusiastic. Ken Burns, who lost his own mother to cancer when he was 11 years old, took care to include the stories of real cancer patients, focusing on their experiences over time as they progressed through treatments — and in the best cases — healing processes. The documentary serves to bring many of the negative stigmas associated with “our malevolent, contemporary doppleganger,” as Dr. Mukherjee puts it, into the public.

In commenting on one of the closing panel questions, Dr. Vogelstein ended on a positive note. He spoke about how much we have learned about cancer since he was a young resident: “Once you understand a disease, it’s only a matter a time before that disease is conquered. We don’t know exactly how the disease will be conquered, but we understand it, it’s outlined and that conquering is just a matter of time.”


Cancer: The Emperor of All Maladies, a film by Barak Goodman, airs on WETA public broadcasting on March 30 and 31 and April 1 at 9 p.m.