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ASCO Provides Backdrop to Upcoming Cancer Documentary

Aug 06, 2013

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

The story of cancer encompasses thousandsof years, innumerable individuals,disheartening setbacks, and life-savingscientific discoveries. A new documentaryin production plans to illuminatethe history of cancer care, contemporarytriumphs in disease management,and the future promise of cancergenomics and molecular biology.

main titleCANCER: The Emperor of All Maladieswill premiere in spring 2015 as a six-hour,three-part series on PBS. Theproject is helmed by two giants inthe world of documentary film-making:executive producer and creativeconsultant Ken Burns (The Civil War;The National Parks: America’s BestIdea) and director and producer BarakGoodman (The American Experience;Clinton).

The film is based on the PulitzerPrize–winning book The Emperor ofAll Maladies: A Biography of Cancer bySiddhartha Mukherjee, MD, PhD, and itscreation weaves together three personalstories of people affected by cancer.Sharon Percy Rockefeller, Presidentand CEO of WETA (the Washington, DC,PBS flagship station) read The Emperorof All Maladies while undergoing treatmentfor colorectal cancer and workedto obtain the film rights. Mr. Burns wasinspired to join the project in honor ofhis mother, who passed away from cancerwhen he was just 11 years old. Televisionjournalist and personality KatieCouric, who lost both her husband andsister to cancer, is also supporting thefilm as well as a related educationaloutreach project through PBS.

These personal stories, and those ofeveryone affected by cancer, are thebackbone of the film, according to Mr.Goodman. “How this disease impactsreal people is always front and centerin our minds, and we’re taking a verypatient-centric view of the story, even as we look back through history,” hesaid. The three parts of the series willweave the past, present, and future ofcancer care into one narrative, “tellingstories through the eyes of peoplegoing through the cancer journey.”

As with the book, the filmmakers foundthemselves guided by the concept of“biography” in approaching the story,with a focus on the human drama ofinnovative researchers and countlesspatients who advanced scientificknowledge through clinical trials. Mr.Goodman, whose documentary backgroundis primarily in historical andpolitical subjects, called the immersionin cancer science “a surprising, excitingjourney. It’s thrilling to understand whythe world-famous researchers we’reinterviewing are so excited, so passionate,and so committed to their work.We’re unlocking the deepest secrets ofthe human body and marveling at thecomplexity of it,” he said.

The 2013 ASCO Annual Meeting in Chicago,Illinois, served as one venue forthe documentary team’s education, aswell as a location for filming. “Visually,it’s a clear depiction of the number ofpeople involved in attacking this disease,and the sheer number of resourcesthat are brought to bear on it,” Mr.Goodman said. As the world’s premiermeeting in oncology, ASCO’s AnnualMeeting also served as the ideal backdropto interview many of the foremostinternational experts on cancer and anopportunity to hear some of the mostsignificant advances in cancer researchworldwide.

Translating the incredible scientific andhistorical detail and epic scope of thenearly 600-page book into a six-hourfilm “is challenging, there’s no questionabout it, but we don’t want to skimp onthe science,” Mr. Goodman said. “Peoplein the field know what an excitingmoment this is in the history of cancerresearch, and it’s important to us toconvey to our audience that there hasbeen a threshold crossed and a scientificbarrier breached.”

The film will explore the “genomic revolution”and scientific breakthroughsthat have led to an improved understandingof cancer at the molecularlevel and, ultimately, improved treatmentsand patient care. In addition,the film will engage with contemporarypolicy issues related to cancer care,such as access to care, health disparities,drug shortages, cost of care, andresearch funding, to provide a completepicture of the economic and legislativeclimate in which progress againstcancer is currently taking place.

The ultimate message of the film willbe one of “optimism,” Mr. Goodmansaid. “One of our paramount goals isto demystify cancer, to make it a lessfearsome, less terrifying word.”

Visit emperorofallmaladies.org formore information and the latest newson the film, and to view a short previewfeaturing Ken Burns and Dr.Siddhartha Mukherjee.
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