Ken Burns’ cancer film highlights Pittsburgh research
By David Templeton, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
- Mar. 30, 2015
Ken Burns was 11 when his mother died of breast cancer, so the topic has been churning in his mind since childhood.
But it took Siddhartha Mukherjee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book, “The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer,” to inspire his latest project. With the book in hand, Sharon Rockefeller of WETA-TV in Washington, D.C., pressed Mr. Burns to do a documentary based on the book, and after reading it, the famous documentary filmmaker agreed.
Four years later, “Cancer: The Emperor of All Maladies,” will air from 9 to 11 tonight on PBS' WQED-TV with the six-hour series continuing through Wednesday.
It’s equal parts education, emotion and empowerment, especially for those facing the growing health challenge.
Tonight, local viewers will be introduced to the work of University of Pittsburgh oncologist Bernard Fisher; later in the series, they will learn about Dennis Slamon, a New Castle, Pa., native and Washington & Jefferson College graduate.
Dr. Fisher caused international controversy by suggesting that cancer cells metastasized throughout the body rather than spread like a stain. Based on that idea, he recommended local lumpectomies to remove breast tumors rather than disfiguring radical mastectomies — the traditional treatment of the time that involved removal of the breast, large areas of muscle and various lymph nodes.
Accused of endangering women’s lives, Dr. Fisher became “the most hated doctor in the history of mankind,” the documentary says. But his ideas won the day when studies proved that lumpectomies had survival rates equal to radical mastectomies. Metastasis now explains how cancers spread.
Dr. Slamon, chief of the Division of Hematology/Oncology and executive vice chairman for research for the University of California, Los Angeles’ Department of Medicine, would help develop Herceptin, the common immunotherapeutic drug to treat HERS2-positive breast cancer. He pressured Genentech Inc. to conduct human clinical trials to test the drug with HER2 representing 20 percent of all breast cancers. The story of “Dennis the Menace” is one of the series’s most dramatic as a pioneer in immunotherapeutic cancer drugs, detailing his aggressive role in pressing to translate breakthroughs into treatments.
Overall, the documentary’s roller-coaster detective story cycles between breakthroughs and setbacks, frustrations and celebrations. Medical advances spawn from scientific ingenuity bolstered by persistence and even happenstance. Expect tears of sorrow but mostly of joy in the personal battles with cancer, including historical ones, that anchor the series.
Such science-based fare falls outside the wheelhouse of documentaries by Mr. Burns and director Barak Goodman, which have largely focused on American war, political biography and American political or cultural phenomena, including baseball, jazz, national parks and Prohibition.
“But this is one of the most satisfying professional projects I’ve ever been engaged in,” Mr. Burns said in an interview last week. “I just feel elated by it.”
Mr. Goodman said no one joined the project knowing how to weave together complicated science about the spectrum of cancers, the politics of funding, its social history and personal battle stories. But they succeeded in stitching together a narrative based largely on chronology but strategically spliced with dramatic personal accounts.
“I’m thrilled how the pieces worked together,” the director said. “My background is in historical documentary filmmaking, but I fell in love with science in doing this. The nice thing is the way we show that scientists aren’t gods ascending among us, but ordinary people, and what they do is understandable.”
A solid foundation of how viruses, genes and environmental factors cause cancer and serve as targets for treatment has led to a second revolution in turning cancer into a manageable condition, Mr. Goodman said.
Today, two-thirds of cancer patients survive at least five years with an ever-growing number who completely overcome it. Mr. Burns said he hopes the series will help persuade Congress to boost funding levels to advance research and save ever more lives.
In the meantime, the real-life detective mystery will keep viewers wide-eyed.
“You can’t make this up,” Mr. Burns said. “It’s better than any fiction, and that’s why I’ve spent my entire life in documentary filmmaking. There is nothing you need to make it more dramatic.”