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Committee Connection

ASCO Provides Backdrop to Upcoming Cancer Documentary

06 Aug 2013 6:38 PM

Documentary, to debut in 2015, based on bestselling book The Emperor of All Maladies


The story of cancer encompasses thousands of years, innumerable individuals, disheartening setbacks, and life-saving scientific discoveries. A new documentary in production plans to illuminate the history of cancer care, contemporary triumphs in disease management, and the future promise of cancer genomics and molecular biology.

main titleCANCER: The Emperor of All Maladies will premiere in spring 2015 as a six-hour, three-part series on PBS. The project is helmed by two giants in the world of documentary film-making: executive producer and creative consultant Ken Burns (The Civil War; The National Parks: America’s Best Idea) and director and producer Barak Goodman (The American Experience; Clinton).

The film is based on the Pulitzer Prize–winning book The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer by Siddhartha Mukherjee, MD, PhD, and its creation weaves together three personal stories of people affected by cancer. Sharon Percy Rockefeller, President and CEO of WETA (the Washington, DC, PBS flagship station) read The Emperor of All Maladies while undergoing treatment for colorectal cancer and worked to obtain the film rights. Mr. Burns was inspired to join the project in honor of his mother, who passed away from cancer when he was just 11 years old. Television journalist and personality Katie Couric, who lost both her husband and sister to cancer, is also supporting the film as well as a related educational outreach project through PBS.

These personal stories, and those of everyone affected by cancer, are the backbone of the film, according to Mr. Goodman. “How this disease impacts real people is always front and center in our minds, and we’re taking a very patient-centric view of the story, even as we look back through history,” he said. The three parts of the series will weave the past, present, and future of cancer care into one narrative, “telling stories through the eyes of people going through the cancer journey.”

As with the book, the filmmakers found themselves guided by the concept of “biography” in approaching the story, with a focus on the human drama of innovative researchers and countless patients who advanced scientific knowledge through clinical trials. Mr. Goodman, whose documentary background is primarily in historical and political subjects, called the immersion in cancer science “a surprising, exciting journey. It’s thrilling to understand why the world-famous researchers we’re interviewing are so excited, so passionate, and so committed to their work. We’re unlocking the deepest secrets of the human body and marveling at the complexity of it,” he said.

The 2013 ASCO Annual Meeting in Chicago, Illinois, served as one venue for the documentary team’s education, as well as a location for filming. “Visually, it’s a clear depiction of the number of people involved in attacking this disease, and the sheer number of resources that are brought to bear on it,” Mr. Goodman said. As the world’s premier meeting in oncology, ASCO’s Annual Meeting also served as the ideal backdrop to interview many of the foremost international experts on cancer and an opportunity to hear some of the most significant advances in cancer research worldwide.

Translating the incredible scientific and historical detail and epic scope of the nearly 600-page book into a six-hour film “is challenging, there’s no question about it, but we don’t want to skimp on the science,” Mr. Goodman said. “People in the field know what an exciting moment this is in the history of cancer research, and it’s important to us to convey to our audience that there has been a threshold crossed and a scientific barrier breached.”

The film will explore the “genomic revolution” and scientific breakthroughs that have led to an improved understanding of cancer at the molecular level and, ultimately, improved treatments and patient care. In addition, the film will engage with contemporary policy issues related to cancer care, such as access to care, health disparities, drug shortages, cost of care, and research funding, to provide a complete picture of the economic and legislative climate in which progress against cancer is currently taking place.

The ultimate message of the film will be one of “optimism,” Mr. Goodman said. “One of our paramount goals is to demystify cancer, to make it a less fearsome, less terrifying word.”

Visit emperorofallmaladies.org for more information and the latest news on the film, and to view a short preview featuring Ken Burns and Dr. Siddhartha Mukherjee.

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