“CANCER: THE EMPEROR OF ALL MALADIES” tells the comprehensive story of cancer, from its first description in an ancient Egyptian scroll to the gleaming laboratories of modern research institutions. The film interweaves a sweeping historical narrative with intimate stories about contemporary patients, and an investigation into the latest scientific breakthroughs that may have brought us, at long last, within sight of lasting cures.
I've never been one to be a sensationalist nor much of a sentimentalist, my temperament just doesn't let me have extremes in my thinking or hold a heightened state of emotion for very long before my rational side kicks in and I let reason become the order of the day. I give you readers this notion of myself as a person so that you have an idea when I say something like "'Cancer The Emperor of All Maladies' is an absolutely must see experience," I mean it. As one in two American men and one in three American women will statistically develop a form of cancer in their lifetime. Everyone will know someone who has developed cancer, or will possibly develop it themselves. I myself have lost numerous family members to various forms of cancer and thankfully I have several members of my family who are cancer survivors - so this six hour series hit extremely close to home and was at many times very difficult to watch.
At six hours in length, this is an exhaustive, comprehensive look at the history of cancer, the different types of cancer, the treatment of cancer, and the future research that continues in the effort to eradicate this scourge of human health. 'Cancer The Emperor of All Maladies' is based on the book 'The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer' by author Siddhartha Mukherjee. Siddhartha Mukherjee opens many of the segments on screen setting the stage of what is to come, but rather than let him tell the story, Producer Ken Burns and Director Barak Goodman let the real men and women in the medical community tell their story. At the same time, each episode follows one or two real-life patients from near the time of their initial diagnosis, through all of the ups and downs of their treatments, to the potential success or failure of treatment.
The first episode tracks the very early course of understanding of cancers in parallel to the history of treating children with the blood-born cancer Leukemia and the early ineffective forms of treatment. Where this is was fascinating was following the early understanding of cancer and that at the time, the idea was that if they could treat or cure Leukemia in children, they could then treat and cure cancer in all people.
The Blind Men and the Elephant:
This second episode tracks the history of modern breast cancer treatment and the controversial periods through the late 60s, 70s. 80s and into the 90s that saw radical new understandings in how to treat cancer. While very grim at times, this was an extremely hopeful feeling episode and followed a surgeon who worked with cancer patients who herself was diagnosed with multiple forms of breast cancer.
Finding the Achilles Heel:
This episode details the current state of affairs for cancer, genetic understanding of the different forms of cancer, and the treatments available. This is the wakeup call episode as it were. While Cancer is no longer an absolute death sentence, it is still lethal and requires diligence on the part of researchers as well as patients to ensure they live full healthy lives - while also working with those who wont and how we care for those people.
I'll say it again, 'Cancer The Emperor of All Maladies' is an absolutely must see documentary series. This series is an extremely difficult show to watch. In numerous places I had to stop and collect myself, so I do not encourage binge watching. As far as the question of who should see this, I would answer absolutely everyone - at some point in their life. This is heavy material so I obviously don't recommend it for small children but if you feel that your 12 year old or young teenager can manage the material, you should not be afraid to show it to them. Cancer is not an "adult" disease and should not be treated as such. While it is very heavy, this is also an incredibly hopeful series. At six hours in length, I was never left with the feeling that "all is lost." Quite the contrary, in fact the purpose of this series is to show that things are moving in the right direction, science is on the cusp of something grand, the only X factor remaining is time. Unfortunately there is no answer to the question of time, more funding and research is needed.
As virtually everyone will be affected by cancer in one way or another, it is all the more poignant that the show was narrated by actor Edward Hermann who passed away from an aggressive form of brain cancer on December 31, 2014 making this documentary series one of his final credits. 'Cancer The Emperor of All Maladies' will be an emotionally draining experience to be sure - but it is something that must be experienced. Gather your loved ones, hold them close, and make sure you have a good supply of your favorite brand of tissues on hand as you watch through this series. At the end you should have a greater understanding of cancer, its treatments, andan appreciation how your participation in fundraisers and awareness groups can help make a difference.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Cancer The Emperor of All Maladies' arrives on Blu-ray from PBS. Pressed on three Region A locked BD25 discs, each disc opens to their respective main menus and navigation options. Extra features can be found on disc three.
Note: Images for this review were pulled from the HD stream from PBS's website, the discs had load issues on both my Mac and PC drives preventing proper screen captures.
Presented in 1.85:1 1080i, 'Cancer The Emperor of All Maladies' is a stunning HD presentation. Like many PBS Ken Burns documentaries, this series is comprised of numerous video and film sources that are all in the best condition possible. This is an absolutely beautiful image through and through. Detail is strong throughout as the documentary doesn't shy away from some hard material while letting patients and subjects maintain their dignity. All of the archive elements look as good as can be expected in conjunction with pristine new digital interview and documentary footage. Few if any compression artifacts are a factor here, some slight banding creeps in a time or two, otherwise this is a flawless presentation.
As should be expected, the audio quality for 'Cancer The Emperor of All Maladies' is flawless. Considering the accumulated elements to pull this documentary together, the results are fantastic. Levels are spot on throughout this Dolby Digital 2.0 track. Imaging is nice and alive letting the score surround the edges of scenes while interview scenes or scenes where the crew follows various subjects in their day to day lives either treating people or receiving treatment. Archive elements have some expected hiss and pop depending on their age, but they don't interrupt the segments any and fit nicely into the piece in a historical context. Quite simply there just isn't anything to fault this audio track for.
Interviews with the Filmmakers: (HD 2:00) A brief interview with Dr. Siddhartha Mukherjee, Ken Burns, and Barak Goodman as they recount their experience putting the series together.
Additional Scenes: Caitlin's Story (HD 23:36) This follows a young 20 year old woman who was diagnosed with Leukemia. She was in remission but relapsed and is about to undergo a bone marrow transplant. She only had a fleeting moment in the main show so this is a nice way to get to know her better and what she endured
Additional Scenes: Terri's Story (HD 19:43) Terri was a hospital nurse who herself was diagnosed with triple negative breast cancer - the hardest form to treat. We get to meet Terri's family and her oncologist as they discus the courses of her treatment and the effects it has had in her life. Again this is another story that just didn't fit the main cut of the series but is thankfully presented in full here. It hits hard, but it is incredible.
This may be the most difficult series to recommend from an emotional point of view, but 'Cancer The Emperor of All Maladies' is something everyone should see. In my eyes it is without a doubt required viewing. While it is a series that tackles some incredibly heavy and emotional material, it does maintain an incredible sense of hope that there is a solution to this great problem. While it's difficult to recommend people purchase this one outright, if that is the only way you're able to see this series, the incredible image quality, audio fidelity, and the additional stories that as I am aware are only available on disc - makes 'Cancer The Emperor of all Maladies' an incredible Blu-ray release.