Cancer: The Emperor of All Maladies
Airs Monday-Wednesday, March 30, 31, April 1, 2015 on WVIA-TV
Cancer: The Emperor of All Maladies is a three-part, six-hour major television event presented by documentary filmmaker Ken Burns, in partnership with WETA, the flagship public broadcasting station in Washington, D.C. Based on the 2010 Pulitzer Prize-winning book The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer by Siddhartha Mukherjee, the series is the most comprehensive documentary on a single disease ever made. This “biography” of cancer covers its first documented appearances thousands of years ago through the epic battles in the 20th century to cure, control and conquer it, to a radical new understanding of its essence. The series also features the current status of cancer knowledge and treatment —the dawn of an era in which cancer may become a chronic or curable illness rather than its historic death sentence in some forms.
The series matches the epic scale of the disease, reshaping the way the public sees cancer and stripping away some of the fear and misunderstanding that has long surrounded it. The story of cancer is a story of human ingenuity, resilience and perseverance but also of hubris, paternalism and misperception. Cancer: The Emperor of All Maladies examines cancer with a cellular biologist’s precision, a historian’s perspective and a biographer’s passion. The series artfully weaves three different films in one: a riveting history documentary; an engrossing and intimate vérité film; and a scientific and investigative report.
Episode One: Magic Bullets (Monday, March 30, 2015/9-11PM)
The search for a “cure” for cancer is the greatest epic in the history of science. It spans centuries and continents, and is full of its share of heroes, villains and sudden vertiginous twists. This episode follows that centuries-long search, but centers on the story of Sidney Farber, who, defying conventional wisdom in the late 1940s, introduces the modern era of chemotherapy, eventually galvanizing a full-scale national “war on cancer.” Interwoven with Farber’s narrative is the contemporary story of little Olivia Blair, who at 14-months old is diagnosed with T-cell acute lymphoblastic leukemia, which spreads to her brain and spinal column. The film follows her as she and her parents struggle with the many hardships and decisions foisted upon a cancer patient. She remains in full remission a year after her diagnosis, but is still on her journey to finish her three-year treatment plan.
Episode Two: The Blind Men and the Elephant (Tuesday, March 31, 2015/9-11PM)
This episode picks up the story in the wake of the declaration of a “war on cancer” by Richard Nixon in 1971. Flush with optimism and awash with federal dollars, the cancer field plunges forward in search of a cure. In the lab, rapid progress is made in understanding the essential nature of the cancer cell, leading to the revolutionary discovery of the genetic basis of cancer. But at the bedside, where patients are treated, few new therapies become available, and a sense of disillusionment takes hold, leading some patients and doctors to take desperate measures. It is not until the late 1990s that the advances in research begin to translate into more precise targeted therapies with the breakthrough drugs Gleevec and Herceptin. Following the history during these fraught decades, the film intertwines the contemporary story of Dr. Lori Wilson, a surgical oncologist who is diagnosed with invasive breast cancer in both breasts in 2013. Her emotional and physical struggles with the disease provide a bracing counterpoint to the historical narrative.
Episode Three: Finding the Achilles Heel (Wednesday, April 1, 2015/9-11PM)
This episode picks up the story at another moment of buoyant optimism in the cancer world: Scientists believe they have cracked the essential mystery of the malignant cell and the first targeted therapies have been developed, with the promise of many more to follow. But very quickly cancer reveals new layers of complexity and a formidable array of unforeseen defenses. In the disappointment that follows, many call for a new focus on prevention and early detection as the most promising fronts in the war on cancer. But other scientists are undeterred, and by the second decade of the 2000s their work pays off. The bewildering complexity of the cancer cell, so recently considered unassailable, yields to a more ordered picture, revealing new vulnerabilities and avenues of attack. Perhaps most exciting of all is the prospect of harnessing the human immune system to defeat cancer. This episode includes patients Doug Rogers, a 60-year-old NASCAR mechanic with melanoma, and Emily Whitehead, a six-year-old child afflicted with leukemia. Each is a pioneer in new immunotherapy treatments, which the documentary follows as their stories unfold. Both see their advanced cancers recede and are able to resume normal lives.
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Watch the Trailer:
Cancer: A Conversation
This 30-minute special features a roundtable conversation hosted by Katie Couric of Yahoo! News and co-founder of “Stand Up To Cancer.” Couric interviews Ken Burns; Sharon Percy Rockefeller, President and CEO of WETA and a cancer survivor; and Dr. Siddhartha Mukherjee, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of the book upon which the film is based.