Considering the Human Side — and the History — of Cancer


The scientists, clinicians, nurses, and other healthcare professionals at Memorial Sloan Kettering may be experts in their fields, but even experts can learn new things. Our Art of Medicine lecture series — open to all MSK employees from every department and planned and organized by medical oncologist Teresa Gilewski of MSK’s Breast Medicine Service — is designed to highlight the human dimensions of cancer from new perspectives.

On March 12, the Art of Medicine hosted filmmaker Barak Goodman, who produced and directed the upcoming PBS documentary Cancer: The Emperor of All Maladies.

The rapt audience got a sneak preview of clips from the film featuring the MSK experts who participated in it: Physician-in-Chief Jose Baselga; Charles Sawyers, Chair of the Human Oncology and Pathogenesis Program; Peter Scardino, Chair of the Department of Surgery; psychiatrist Jimmie Holland; Jedd Wolchok, Chief of the Melanoma Service; and Peter Bach, Director of the Center for Health Policy and Outcomes.

An Ambitious Project

Mr. Goodman said he didn’t need much convincing when esteemed producer and documentarian Ken Burns approached him about taking the reins of the film. “The book is such an epic, masterful, beautifully written piece of work that it was instantaneous for me to want to do this project,” he said.

Medical oncologist Teresa Gilewski and filmmaker Barak Goodman

Medical oncologist Teresa Gilewski and filmmaker Barak Goodman discuss Cancer: The Emperor of All Maladies with an audience of MSK employees.

After showing the footage, Mr. Goodman took questions from the audience and discussed the purpose behind the documentary and the process of creating it.

His team, which consisted of close to 70 people, shot what he estimated to be hundreds of hours of film and more than 100 interviews over the course of production. “It’s really unique in its size, because it’s three films in one,” he said about Emperor. “It’s a history film, a verit é film, in which there are real people and real situations, and a science documentary. It was definitely a gamble to see how these live together.”

Getting the Story

As part of the narrative, the film crew embedded with two hospitals — Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore and Charleston Area Medical Center in West Virginia — where they followed patients and doctors for more than a year.

[The patients] brought a level of humanity to the film.
Filmmaker Barak Goodman

By including actual patients and their stories, the filmmakers were able to connect the science to real life in a tangible, emotional way. “[The patients] brought a level of humanity to the film and help viewers connect to it,” Mr. Goodman said.

Also invaluable was the ease the featured doctors had in translating complicated medical concepts to an unfamiliar audience. The experts showcased in the film “were able to make it come alive, to be real,” he added. “They were able to translate complex science into terms we all can understand.”

Lessons Learned

Mr. Goodman shared with the MSK audience one of the main things that surprised him during the course of making the film: the process of scientific discovery. “I assumed it was a march of progress,” he said. “That it’s just ascending the ladder. I didn’t know how much failure — and hunches — are a part of science. Luck is a huge part of science. That was a revelation to me.”

He and his team also wanted to emphasize the huge value of basic research in generating so many of the treatment breakthroughs used today. “We wanted to be part of the conversation that reminds people we didn’t get here without research,” he said.

We wanted to help demystify the disease.
Barak Goodman

The documentary’s final main goal is to convey that a cancer diagnosis isn’t necessarily the death sentence it used to be. “We wanted to help demystify the disease,” he said. “It’s not as fearsome and terrifying as it once was. We want people to leave feeling hopeful.”


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Hi! So great to de-mystify cancer as it is seen busy the public/patients and not just from pharmaceutical companies whose investments in research may or may not be in alignment with the hypocritical oath. I look forward to watching it on demand and hopefully find out the long range effects of chemo and radiation and recoccurande. I'm sure the film that is so touted as brilliant will examine where we are in Two Thousand & fifteen.

Nice post, and thanks for sharing with us.