Whenever I see filmmaker Ken Burns in the news, I marvel at his eternal boyishness. How can someone born during the Eisenhower administration look no older than 35? Could Burns be some of sort of latter-day Dorian Gray? Is there a film locked in his attic featuring his 61-year-old doppelgänger? Has he ever considered wearing a part in his hair?
Burns, as executive producer, gets his name above the title. Barak Goodman is the actual director. Naturally, because Burns’ name is well known, PBS and the film production company are leveraging that connection.
Burns’ mother died from metastatic breast cancer when he was 11. “There was never a time when I didn’t know my mother was sick,” he told an interviewer. Burns ascribes his mother’s death with influencing his career — his documentaries are rooted in the past, an attempt to breathe new life into those who are long gone.
Siddhartha Mukherjee’s popular book inspired the six-hour film airing on PBS in March 2015. The book is a “biography” of cancer from ancient Egypt to the present day. According to promotional materials, the PBS effort is three films in one: a historical documentary; an intimate vérité film; and a scientific and investigative report. Perhaps we will learn how many licks it takes to get to the Tootsie Roll center of a Tootsie Pop, too.
One of the hallmarks of a Ken Burns’ documentary is length: his series on baseball was 19 hours long, his portrait of the Roosevelts unfolded over 14 hours and his landmark Civil War effort clocked in at 11 hours. Yet Burns and Goodman propose to cover cancer’s biography — all 5,000 years of it — in six hours.
The series looks at cancer’s past, present and future. Mukherjee, who appears throughout the film, anchors the historical section — I’m sure that part will be riveting.
I’m dubious about the second segment, which takes viewers to the pediatric oncology ward at Johns Hopkins Kimmel Cancer Center in Baltimore as well as the Charleston Area Medical Center (CAMC) for some wide-ranging patient encounters.
This sounds like talking to some people from Los Angeles, Cedar Rapids, Tallahassee and New York City and assuming you know what life is like in Phoenix, Dallas, Detroit or Ogunquit, Maine. Even Ken Burns limited himself to one war (Civil), one sport (baseball) and one family (Roosevelt).
If I made a documentary about cancer there would be an entire segment devoted to explaining that all cancer is not alike and even one type of cancer can be quite complex depending on stage, subtype and other factors (early-stage breast cancer, for example is vastly different from metastatic breast cancer and ER/PR+ HER2- is a different kettle of fish than triple negative breast cancer). I hope that message comes across in “Cancer: The Emperor of All Maladies.” (I would also compile some of the dumbest things ever said to cancer patients—there would be no shortage of material! Think of the DVD extras!)
From the trailer, we know that the film will wrap up with the obligatory Big, Hopeful Finish. “You saved my life, Doctor!” exclaims one patient. Researchers use words such as “stunning” and “exhilarating” to describe the future of cancer research.
I want to believe that, I really do.
Unfortunately, progress has been painfully slow on some cancer fronts. Just ask someone with advanced pancreatic cancer. Readers will recall that Mukherjee’s book ends with a reflection on the evolution of cancer treatments, from ancient Egypt to 2050 AD. “[Now] give Atossa metastatic pancreatic cancer in 500 BC,” wrote Mukherjee. “Her prognosis is unlikely to change by more than a few months over 2,500 years.”
Part of the challenge with pancreatic cancer is that early detection is almost impossible. But all U.S. people should be alarmed at the anemic level of government-supported research.
When adjusted for inflation, the NIH budget is nearly 25 percent below its 2003 level. “ASCO is deeply concerned about continued stagnation of federal research funding,” ASCO immediate-past President Clifford A. Hudis, MD, FACP said. “All types of high-quality cancer research projects are at risk of being slowed, halted or simply not pursued. In addition to the challenges this presents to basic and translational research, NCI recently announced plans to cut the overall patient enrollment target for cancer clinical trials by 15 percent, after having already scaled back and consolidated its National Clinical Trials Network.”
Hudis previously sounded this alarm in his introduction to ASCO’s 2013 Clinical Cancer Advances report: “ Federal funding for cancer research has steadily eroded over the past decade, and only 15 percent of the ever-shrinking budget is actually spent on clinical trials. This dismal reality threatens the pace of progress against cancer and undermines our ability to address the continuing needs of our patients.”
It’s possible this Ken Burns-produced cancer film will inspire outraged viewers to rush to their laptops and fire off angry letters to their elected officials about the urgent need to restore NCI funding. But I doubt it.
I’m not feeling too optimistic about private funding. The “More Birthdays” people, to offer just one example, aren’t exactly tearing up the research pea patch either.
“When I joined the Board, funding for external research grants was 22% and when I left it was down to 10%,” former American Cancer Society President Vincent T. DeVita Jr., MD told MedPage Today. As MedPage reports, Devita Jr. called the situation “scandalous,” especially since ACS has presented itself to the grassroots public as a research organization while putting its money into other projects. (Including being among the sponsors of the PBS cancer film.)
Burns, Mukhurjee and Goodman have a fourth partner on this film: Laura Ziskin. Ziskin a film producer and a co-founder of Stand Up 2 Cancer, was diagnosed with lobular Stage 3 estrogen-receptor positive breast cancer in 2004.
In 2010, she learned her breast cancer had metastasized to her liver. There is no cure for metastatic breast cancer.
Ziskin died at age 61 in 2011. As the “Meet the Creators” section of the film site puts it, “She lived courageously with the disease that ultimately took her life in June 2011.”
Like Ken Burns’ mother, my mom also died from metastatic breast cancer. I was 17. Now I am almost 50 — and like my mom, I have metastatic breast cancer. I will die with or from this disease.
I want a happier ending.