Cancer Gets the Ken Burns’ Treatment on PBS (And Why I Won’t Be Watching It)

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?

A documentary devoted to all of these details is one that I would watch. The forthcoming “Cancer: The Emperor of All Maladies” is not — at least judging by the trailer.

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.”

My mom died from inflammatory metastatic breast cancer at age 53.

My mom died from inflammatory metastatic breast cancer at age 53.

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.

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11 thoughts on “Cancer Gets the Ken Burns’ Treatment on PBS (And Why I Won’t Be Watching It)

  1. Ethel says:

    How come it’s always those folks who do not have Cancer or Metastatic Breast Cancer who know everything. Will I watch it? Maybe. I have MBC and have had it for 51/2 years. Always interested in hearing what supposedly learned people have to say about my life.

    • katherinembc says:

      I concede my evaluation is premature–but nothing I saw on the film site or the trailer convinces me new ground will be broken here. In fairness, the film’s production team had a huge task–there is no way to cover ALL of cancer–nor can the film duplicate the tone/biographical framing device that made the book such a best seller. But how can we put on an “Up With Cancer” show when we know how dire research funding is in the US? Take a look at the sponsors of the film–could they be putting more money in research? How about a film that shows how hard it is to get people to participate in a clinical trial? In the US, we have one of the WORST accrual rates. I hope this film is not a feel–good commercial for its pharmaceutical backers.

  2. katherinembc says:

    “This should be an edge-of-the-seat story,” says Mukherjee. “Can we use the power of reason to solve one of the most elementary mysteries of cellular biology?”

    What will it take to solve that mystery? More money, says Mukherjee, who decries the budget cuts that have afflicted scientific research. And if you think we already devote a lot of money to the NIH, the CDC and other government research outlets, Mukherjee says their combined budgets don’t equal the money we spent on air-conditioning for the Gulf War.

    But he still has hope. “I’m immensely optimistic, despite the political realm. I’m optimistic because of science and patients.”
    http://www.usatoday.com/story/life/tv/2015/01/19/ken-burns-takes-on-cancer/22004683/

  3. katherinembc says:

    There is a clip online featuring a woman with metastatic breast cancer–Pam Cromwell. It acknowledges Pam’s treatment is for life–but is really more about her “fighting” via her dedication to kick boxing. I am happy for Pam, but few people with metastatic breast cancer could follow her example. Still, I’m glad they spoke with her: http://video.pbs.org/video/2365364704/

  4. I admit, having liked the book, I was/am looking forward to the series. Very glad you’ve presented these thoughts. I have not taken time (until today) to watch any of these clips, and I would’ve been disappointed to see all the rah rah, had I not been prepared, as you have done.
    My cancer experience was one of always being blindsided as it is for many I’m sure. Nothing went according to our culture’s script. I should’ve expected some of the points you make here (yeah, why IS this so short when all those other Burns things are loooooong?) I will adjust my expectations accordingly, so I don’t get fooled again.

  5. katherinembc says:

    This sounds intriguing: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/being-mortal/
    FRONTLINE follows renowned New Yorker writer and Boston surgeon Atul Gawande as he explores the relationships doctors have with patients who are nearing the end of life. In conjunction with Gawande’s new book, Being Mortal, the film investigates the practice of caring for the dying, and shows how doctors — himself included — are often remarkably untrained, ill-suited and uncomfortable talking about chronic illness and death with their patients.

  6. nancyspoint says:

    Hi Katherine, I always appreciate getting your take on things. I am looking forward to watching this series. Will I be disappointed? Very possibly. Who knows… Ones thing’s for sure, many likely will be watching, so I do hope they get more things right than wrong.

  7. Mandi says:

    Interesting, I hadn’t heard of it, but I am always behind on these things. I too want a happier ending, one for you, one for me, one for all of us!

  8. The Accidental Amazon says:

    Great post, Katherine. I can only take small doses of news stories and films about cancer. Often none at all of fictional representations. I hate hype and inaccuracy and rah-rah.

    What I thought was interesting today was this link to a story about treating glioblastoma, a form a brain cancer, w altered polio virus cells, which has kept alive actual humans w actual cancer. http://www.cbsnews.com/videos/using-polio-to-kill-cancer-a-producers-notebook/

  9. Musa Mayer says:

    Katherine, I approached this series with great skepticism, too. Would Burns end up taking a complex and nuanced history of cancer advocacy and research, with all its wrong turns and disappointments, and neuter it up for TV with a feel-good “cure is just around the corner” message? Now that I’ve had a chance to see “Cancer: The Emperor of All Maladies,” I think it’s safe to say that the film is as true to the book as any 6 hour treatment could be, thanks I suspect to Siddhartha Mukherjee’s collaboration on the script, which makes sure few hints of the usual “pink” gloss are apparent. It is the first serious treatment of the cancer research enterprise I’ve ever seen on TV in my 25 years of advocacy that is honest enough to show a historical perspective of all the wrong turns and blind alleys of cancer research for what they are. Advocates like me have been begging for realistic assessments of research findings for many years, but it’s the glowing press releases from every trusted cancer research institution grubbing for funding–and the media hype that invariably follows–that always capture the pubic’s attention. Indirectly, over time, I think this bias has led to the drop in research funding. When time after time, the next “big thing” in cancer research doesn’t offer the promised cures, people realize they’re being misled. They lose interest in the whole enterprise of cancer research. To remedy this, we have to start telling the truth. The old Santayana cliche “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” was never more true. I hope you will decide to watch the series after all.

  10. Christy says:

    Having watched the film, I have to say I’ve been impressed. It is not a comprehensive compendium of all issues relating to all of cancer; that would take years. It does a great job of talking about how our understanding of cancer has changed over time, it points out that cancer is many diseases, and touches on metastatic disease, including melanoma. It doesn’t cover everything related to breast cancer (or any cancer) and there is a heavy focus on pediatric cancer. But I thought the segments shot in West Virginia did a fabulous job of touching on the tough discussions that take place about continuing versus stopping treatment, on the role of the oncologist in not just treating the cancer but also the patient, and the tragedy of income inequalities and their effect on whether one is able to live or die. In all, it was a fascinating history, and I hope it motivates people to insist on adequate funding for medical research.

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