Under the sign of cancer

A father's death, a saga of medical triumph; Adam Wishart's "One in Three" remarkably blends two tales into one.

By Andrew Leonard
Published February 5, 2007 4:53PM (EST)

It takes a special kind of courage to write about your own father's death. It takes something more, something nearly unfathomable, to research and write about the illness afflicting him as a public act of catharsis. There are passages in Adam Wishart's "One in Three: A Son's Journey Into the History and Science of Cancer," that must have been heartbreaking to write. They are surely heartbreaking to read.

I did not want to read the book. My own father has been fighting lung cancer for five years, and the prospect of submitting myself to another writer's anguish seemed self-flagellatory. But I'd reviewed a previous book by Wishart on the European Internet pranksters etoy and their battle with the online toy retailer eToys, and I knew he was a smart, lucid writer. I sneaked a look on my BART ride home one evening.

The first paragraph:

I cling to my dad's enormous hand. With long strides, we are rushing through London. I am six. I am sometimes catching my step, sometimes just being lifted by his forward thrust. I am wearing a bright yellow cape, with a sailor's hat to keep the rain off, and at every puddle I splash the rushing Christmas shoppers. Dad scolds me, but I know he doesn't mean it: we are a tight pair.

By the end of my commute I knew I was reading "One in Three" to the end.

Wishart's genius is in combining the wrenching story of his father's cancer with the broader medical history of humanity's struggle to understand and treat the hydra-headed disease. And this latter story, he persuasively argues, is a happier tale, a narrative defined by steady progress; an enthralling tribute to the remarkable doctors and scientists who have unraveled the mysteries of how our bodies work and devised ways to fight their deterioration.

The title "One in Three" refers to a dread statistic: One in three of us will develop cancer. The prevalence of the disease is so great that there is even a cultural suspicion that cancer might be a result of humanity's own industrial progress, that as we poison our environment with all sorts of chemicals, we are also poisoning ourselves. But Wishart does an effective job of demolishing the argument that cancer is some sort of allergic reaction to pollution. Death rates from cancer rose steadily in the past in large part because people were living longer and other diseases were being successfully treated. And in recent years cancer death rates have begun to decline, particularly in specific domains such as lung cancer.

I can bear witness to this truth. Twenty, maybe even 10, years ago, the cancer that attacked my father's lungs might well have ended his life. But he lives.

Wishart's father does not. But reading his account of how we have come to understand this mighty foe, it is impossible not to feel that even greater successes are bound to follow. To provide hope to others in the midst of his own sorrow is a marvelous achievement: "One in Three" is a fine piece of work.

Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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