The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer

One topic that appears over and over again throughout Intermediate Physics for Medicine and Biology is cancer. In Section 8.8, Russ Hobbie and I discuss using magnetic nanoparticles to heat a tumor. Section 9.10 describes the unproven hypothesis that nonionizing electromagnetic radiation can cause cancer. In Section 13.8, we analyze magnetic resonance guided high intensity focused ultrasound (MRgHIFUS), which has been proposed as a treatment for prostate cancer. Section 14.10 includes a discussion of how ultraviolet light can lead to skin cancer. One of the most common treatments for cancer, radiation therapy, is the subject of Section 16.10. Finally, in Section 17.10 we explain how positron emission tomography (PET) can assist in imaging metastatic cancer. Despite all this emphasis on cancer, Russ and I don’t really delve deeply into cancer biology. We should.

Last week, I attended a talk (remotely, via zoom) by my colleague and friend Steffan Puwal, who teaches physics at Oakland University. Steffan has a strong interest in cancer, and has compiled a reading list: These books are generally not too technical but informative. I urge you to read some of them to fill that gap between physics and cancer biology.

Steffan says that the best of these books is The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer, by Siddhartha Mukherjee. Ken Burns has produced a television documentary based on this book. You can listen to the trailer at the bottom of this post. If you are looking for a more technical review paper, Steffan suggests “ Hallmarks of Cancer: The Next Generation,” by Douglas Hanahan and Robert Weinberg (Cell, Volume 4, Pages 646–674, 2011). It’s open access, so you don’t need a subscription to read it. He also recommends the websites for the MD Anderson Cancer Center ( and the Dana Farber Cancer Institute (

Thanks, Steffan, for teaching me so much about cancer.

Originally published at



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Brad Roth

Brad Roth


Professor of Physics at Oakland University and coauthor of the textbook Intermediate Physics for Medicine and Biology.