For filmmaker Ken Burns, tackling the complete story of cancer was personal.
“My mom died of cancer, breast cancer, when I was 11 years old, just a few months short of my 12th birthday,” Burns said on ABC’s “Good Morning America” Tuesday. “There wasn’t a moment growing up that I wasn’t aware something was wrong with her, and though I have a very busy schedule of films, I couldn’t not do this one.”
“Cancer: The Emperor of All Maladies,” a three-part, six-hour documentary, debuts Monday night on PBS.
For the daunting project, executive producer Burns, already juggling other films, recruited filmmaker Barak Goodman to handle the day-to-day producing for “Cancer.”
“How could you not do something that touches the lives of every single one of us in this country?” Burns asked.
The resulting three-episode program intertwines and explains the science and mystery of the disease with patients’ and families’ personal stories, adding intimate moments around the necessary clinical components.
The documentary is based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning book, “The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer,” by Dr. Siddhartha Mukherjee.
“A patient asked me why we’re doing this? Where are we going?” Mukherjee said on “GMA” about the inspiration for the book. “Where’s the report card? I want to know, people want to know, as a doctor I want to know, as a patient I want to know, as a person I want to know why are we here today, and what’s happening next?”
“And the film does exactly that. It shows us how we got here, and what happens next, and that’s crucial,” Burns added.
In episode one, “Magic Bullets,” viewers will learn in general about the centuries-old search for a cancer cure, and specifically about the work of Sidney Farber. In the 1940s, Farber introduced the modern era of chemotherapy, reaching beyond more conventional thinking and solidifying the national “war on cancer.” The episode also introduces Olivia Blair, a 14-month-old diagnosed with T-cell acute lymphoblastic leukemia, which spreads to her brain and spinal column.
The second installment, “The Blind Men and the Elephant,” brings viewers to the 1970s and the discovery of the genetic basis of cancer, and to the 1990s and the breakthrough drugs Herceptin and Gleevec. Also unfolding is the story of Dr. Lori Wilson, a surgical oncologist diagnosed with invasive breast cancer in 2013.
The final episode, “Finding an Achilles Heel,” centers on the present, detailing the newest prospects for attacking cancer, the most promising being the harnessing of the immune system to defeat the disease. Among those undergoing these new immunotherapy treatments are featured patients Doug Rogers, 60, a NASCAR mechanic with melanoma, and Emily Whitehead, a 6-year-old fighting leukemia.
“We are at an incredibly hopeful moment, but we get our media, and we hear a little bit about this discovery, this setback, this thing, that happens, how do you aggregate all of that into some content that has a narrative to it, that turns everyone who watches it into a kind of cancer researcher?” Burns asks.
“They understand that if Sidd’s right, this is the emperor of all maladies,” Burns said. “Then we’re all its subjects, and we need to join the resistance movement right away, and fight this disease.”
Baton Rouge General Medical Center is the local underwriter for “Cancer: The Emperor of All Maladies.”