Why I Won’t Be Watching Cancer: The Emperor of All Maladies

Posted on: March 30th, 2015 by

Ken Burns’ much-anticipated PBS series titled Cancer: The Emperor of All Maladies — based on Dr. Siddhartha Mukherjee’s book The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer — starts tonight and continues on March 31 and April 1. Many have set their sights and DVRs on this series.

I am one of the few who will not be watching.

Don’t get me wrong: I love Ken Burns’ work. His Civil War series is my favorite, and he has a deserved reputation for excellence. I’m sure the series will be poignant, enlightening, and worth watching.

But a huge part of my cancer-diagnosis-and-treatment collateral damage has been PTSD, and this condition often dictates what I can and cannot tolerate. My internal censor knows me well and monitors what I should be exposed to. Listening to my censor has helped me avoid the pitfalls that stir up flashbacks, fear, and anguish.


Sometimes I ignore the PTSD flags because my desire to read/watch something on cancer overrides my good judgement. After all, like so many people, I’m curious to know more about this disease. However, unlike many people, I must pick up the pieces with my therapist and Xanax.

So, when choosing between the short-term gratification of watching a great series on cancer and my long-term mental health, I must choose the latter.

I admit, my curiosity recently got the better of me, whispering sweet temptations in my ear, and I watched — transfixed and mesmerized — a trailer of the PBS series.

I saw a scene where an elderly man was crying because he had to temporarily stop chemotherapy so he could physically heal. I watched his tears, as he was told, possibly by a hospice worker, that it was okay if he decided to stop chemotherapy and live out the rest of his life suffering less.

And I felt extreme empathy stir within me during that heart-breaking scene. I felt a gut-punch and horror and anguish, as well as memories of my own treatments. If I felt all of this just watching a few-minute clip, how could I endure watching an entire series of story after story?

I hate to admit this, and this is the first time I’ve ever admitted this: a couple of years ago I attempted to read The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer. I had heard rave reviews of this Pulitzer-prize winning book, and I just knew it would be excellent. Deep in my psyche I knew I should not be reading it, but I clicked the Place Your Order button on Amazon anyway.

Only a day into reading, I started crying. But I forced myself to continue with the book. I wanted to read it, as emotionally difficult as it was, because I knew it was a masterpiece and I didn’t want to deprive myself of experiencing this great book. So I shook and sobbed through the next few pages. I finally shut the book in frustration and gave it to Goodwill, hoping someone else would find it useful.

I felt like a failure and inadequate for giving up then. And come to think of it, I still do.

How can so many people read this book, and I fail at it? What kind of weak individual cowers at renowned cancer literature?

When I discovered this book was being made into a PBS series, I was initially elated because I believed the television version would make the book content more palatable to me. I figured I would be able to know the essentials of what the book covered without the torture of reading it. Yes, I would watch it, though my censor threw up many warning signs.

But reality has set in. Although I really want to watch the series, I’m going to pass.

I know many cancer bloggers will be writing on this Ken Burns series, and I am looking forward to reading their posts: Finding out information second-hand works better for me than watching the actual series.

Unfortunately, one of the Emperors in my world is PTSD and I must take heed.

Are you watching Ken Burns’ Cancer: The Emperor of All Maladies?

How do you feel about reading/hearing/watching stories about cancer?

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36 Responses to Why I Won’t Be Watching Cancer: The Emperor of All Maladies

  1. Caroline had this to say about that:

    Yes I will watch it, but on my own terms. I will tivo it and then watch it when I can. It may take me a while. But I completely understand where you are coming from. For years after my first cancer diagnosis, I couldn’t read any books or watch movies about anyone with cancer or a lifelong health issue. I have been known to throw books across the room because they upset me so much. It took a long time to get to the point where I could enjoy them again. See my blog post about this too.

    • Beth L. Gainer had this to say about that:

      Hi Caroline,

      Believe it or not, I understand your throwing books across the room. I have had the urge to do that myself sometimes. You watching the series on your own terms sounds doable and a smart thing to do.

      Do you have a link to the post? I’ll try to find it; I’m interested in reading it.

  2. Fran had this to say about that:

    I am happy that you are atune with your body, heart and soul. That I feel is the most important think about healing ourselves. Peace and all god to you!!!

    • Beth L. Gainer had this to say about that:

      Thank you, Fran, for all the support. I’m glad I am in tune with myself, too. I’ve stuck to my word and haven’t watched the series thus far, and I know I’m happier for it.

  3. Kathi had this to say about that:

    Beth, I couldn’t finish the book myself. I also have not watched any of the recent films or TV shows or show episodes depicting someone with cancer. I haven’t blogged as much as I used to. I don’t keep up with reading all the blogs I used to read. I hardly ever go on Twitter anymore. I don’t do the Tweetchats I used to follow. I can’t. I’m tired of it all. For goodness’ sake, I treat cancer patients at work! I need a break when I get home.

    Good for you for respecting your own limits. Each of us has to do that the best way we can. After all, we endured treatment so we could live, and life is for living our lives, not monitoring every single thing said about the subject of cancer.

    I won’t be watching it tonight either, because I do not have a TV or cable. Whether I watch it online or not after, I haven’t decided.

    Hugs. xoxo, Kathi

    • Beth L. Gainer had this to say about that:


      Yes, the cancer world is difficult to cope with emotionally, isn’t it. I know you don’t blog as much as you used to, and I totally respect your decision. It’s what’s right for you.

      You are an awesome writer and blogging about anything other than cancer is a great thing, too.

      I do have a TV and cable, but I rarely watch anything. Mostly I DVR my daughter’s educational programs.

  4. Carolyn Frayn had this to say about that:

    Hi Beth, I’ll be watching it, but I’m not sure if I will do so in smaller pieces or what. I don’t watch movies or TV shows about cancer, usually. I find any drama depicting our reality falls so short of it that emotions set it. This documentary will be reality, and I’m curious with respect to history etc. You are treating yourself right by knowing yourself so well, I’m glad. xox

    • Beth L. Gainer had this to say about that:


      You are right about TV shows and movies not showing the reality of cancer. It annoys me to no end. Oftentimes, there’s cancer fallout and collateral damage not even shown on shows. People are “cured” or not, and that is that.

      Thank you for your kind words. We all have to be true to ourselves.

  5. Becky had this to say about that:

    I haven’t decided about the series yet. I have not yet bought the book. My challenge is that I read books at night before bed, and a cancer book at night is not an option if there is any chance of me getting a decent nights sleep. I just don’t cope well in the evenings. I also have on my list of to reads “The Tibetan Book on Living and Dying”

    • Beth L. Gainer had this to say about that:


      Like you, I don’t read cancer-related materials at night, especially before bed. The book on your to-read list sounds interesting. I know I couldn’t read it, though.

      I wonder if you watched the series. I’m very curious and hope my fellow bloggers will write about it.

  6. susan rahn had this to say about that:

    I completely agree with your decision and I, myself should also pass on watching it too however I almost have a compulsion with things like this. I just can’t stop myself. I justify it by telling myself and others that I am keeping it ‘real’ and not pretending that I’m not sick. I could also learn something that might help me. I need to watch so I can inform my Dr’s what they may not know. I rationalize until I feel justified for my actions. I really need to find that little voice that tells me its not a good idea and promise to listen to it every time it speaks.

    • Beth L. Gainer had this to say about that:


      Thank you so much for your support. I do understand the compulsion. I have a compulsion with things cancer-related, and I usually watch/read more things than I should. My not watching the series is a huge step for me. My curiosity is burning, but I have to continue to say “no.”

      I like your line, “I need to watch so I can inform my Dr’s what they may not know.” We patients really do know a lot, and not all doctors have all the information we need.

  7. Jen Campisano had this to say about that:

    Hi Beth, I also had to stop reading the book, a couple of chapters in. I’m hoping I can watch the miniseries, now that I’m not in the throes of being newly diagnosed like I was when I attempted the book. I also had to stop watching “Breaking Bad” because of the cancer connection. And it took me nearly two years and several attempts to get through “Wild” and now it is one of my favorites. There is absolutely a different filter that applies after a cancer diagnosis. Don’t judge yourself for that, just do what feels right and doesn’t necessitate extra therapists’ visits!

    • Beth L. Gainer had this to say about that:

      Hi Jen,

      I thought I was the only one who couldn’t read the book! It helps me to know I’m not alone.

      You are right: a cancer diagnosis really does give us that different filter. I no longer am judging myself — after all, we each make the decisions that are right for us.

  8. April had this to say about that:

    Both of my parents had cancer and died from the treatment of it. Now my daughter is battling breast cancer. I don’t plan to watch this movie. To me it feels like exploitation of the victims and glorification of an industry that has no intention of finding a cure. Poisoning people to cure disease is so last century-not much different than treating people with bloodletting and mercury. Billions in economic activity would dry up if we didn’t need all of these state of the art cancer centers. The statistics on survival haven’t changed- just the way they calculate the numbers has.

    • Beth L. Gainer had this to say about that:

      April, I’m so sorry for all that cancer has done to your family. I really hope your daughter does well.

      I’ve never before thought of the series as an exploitation of others, and you may be right. I agree that poisoning people to achieve a disease-free status is really outdated. We need to figure out a cure.

      Very powerful comment. Thank you.

  9. Eileen@womaninthehat had this to say about that:

    We all deal with the aftermath in our own way. You know know what works for you and you’re taking care of yourself. I hope you feel good about that. Masterpiece or not, there’s no need to rip open scabs.

    • Beth L. Gainer had this to say about that:


      Thank you for your comment. It’s important, I’ve discovered, for us to take good care of ourselves.

      I do feel good about the self-care. I know I’d be in a worse place psychologically if I watched the series. This week I’m content, and that’s a good thing.

  10. Shelly had this to say about that:

    I hope to watch it, but I too have so many things that I have to avoid to keep me steady. I can’t look at our last whole family picture as it was a month before my sister-in-law and I were hit by cancer. I am still here, but she isn’t. I see that picture and it hurts. We had no idea and didn’t see it coming. Why her and not me?

    • Beth L. Gainer had this to say about that:


      I like the word you used: “steady.” That’s really how I feel — like I need to be steady, and watching disturbing things on TV (what I deem are disturbing to me, anyway) keeps me unsteady.

      I’m so sorry about your sister-in-law. There’s no rhyme or reason why some people survive and others don’t. I found myself asking the same questions when friends I’ve had have died from cancer.

  11. Janine had this to say about that:

    Beth, I think it takes great strength and restraint to keep away from things you know will hurt you. Doing so doesn’t mean you’re weak, in my book: it means you’re strong. In this world, it would be possible to consume media about cancer 24-7 if you wanted. I think it’s better to set limits based on what you know about yourself. The world keeps turning, and all that information will still be out there should you feel differently one day.

    • Beth L. Gainer had this to say about that:


      Thank you so much for your kind words. You are right about cancer being in the media constantly. I am very confident in my decision to protect myself from all this information. I’ve had no PTSD episodes this week; this wouldn’t have been the case had I watched the series.

  12. Claudia Schmidt had this to say about that:

    Beth, I’m so sorry that you have PTSD and have to deal with that, on top of all the other things that breast cancer brings. And I can can understand why you wouldn’t want to watch the documentary as it would bring back all those reminders to the forefront. It’s good that you know yourself well enough to make the right choices. Best, Claudia

    • Beth L. Gainer had this to say about that:

      Hi Claudia,

      Thank you for your support; it means so much to me. PTSD really stinks, but all I can do is deal with it the best way I can. Protecting myself from cancer-related information while still being part of a cancer-blogging community is a real balancing act, but I’m able to do it, luckily. I just know which choices are the right ones for me.

  13. Nancy's Point had this to say about that:

    Hi Beth,
    Since I’m traveling, I’m DVRing it. I want to watch it, but I totally understand why you are opting out. It’s important to know what your tolerance boundaries are and to honor them. Doing so most definitely does not make you a failure. Terrific post. Thank you.

    • Beth L. Gainer had this to say about that:

      Hi Nancy,

      I know you will watch it and, if you blog about it, I will certainly want to read what you have to say.

      We all have to honor our boundaries, as you say. Thank you for your support and kind words. It means a lot to me.

  14. Michelle had this to say about that:

    I watched an hour or so last night and found myself sobbing. I myself am a 2 time survivor and it triggered a whole bunch of things for me. I turned it off. My husband offered to turn it on tonight but I declined….it’s just too much for me. I need peace and this show did nothing but stir up dust for me. God bless.

    • Beth L. Gainer had this to say about that:


      I’m so sorry that you had such a difficult time with the part of the series you watched. To be honest, I’m sure I would be sobbing, and there are many Kleenex boxes being used over the series.

      I’m sorry you had cancer twice. Good for you for knowing and setting your boundaries.

  15. Elizabeth J. had this to say about that:

    Beth, I’m an IBC survivor, now on my second recurrence, the daughter of a cancer survivor (now deceased from other causes) and literally watched my grandmother die from cancer when I was a teen.
    I will not be watching either. There are some things we just should not put ourselves through. I totally understand and support your decision.

    • Beth L. Gainer had this to say about that:


      I’m so saddened that you are having a recurrence and for all the trauma cancer gave your family.

      I appreciate your support, and I totally understand and support your decision, too.

      Take care.

  16. Jeremiah had this to say about that:

    You are not alone. While I have not had Cancer myself, I have lost my father, both grandmothers, five great aunts, an uncle, an aunt and many friends to Cancer.

    Like you, my girlfriend, Jamie is a Cancer Survivor with PTSD. When we first met, she could not even pass through the City of New Haven (where she was treated) without anxiety. As time has passed (It has been two years now since she has been cancer free), life has gotten easier and the PTSD has faded to some degree.

    The first episode was difficult for me to watch. I could identify with so many of the families interviewed, but did not realize how strong Jamie was for watching it – until she said she could not bring herself to watch the second episode with me.

    I thank God for the work everyone is doing to fight Cancer and am thankful for the light this series will bring to fighting Cancer.

    Even though you are not able to watch it, I envy your strength, for writing this blog.

    I wish you peace in the future.

    All the best!

    • Beth L. Gainer had this to say about that:


      Thank you so much for your touching comment and your support. Your family has been through so much, and I’m so sorry about your girlfriend having had cancer and PTSD.

      I totally understand her aversion to being in New Haven, as it was the place she was treated. I’m glad her PTSD is lessening. I’m sure there are many people out there who opted to watch one or more episodes, but not all of them.

      Jamie sounds like a strong person, indeed.

      Wishing you both my best,


  17. Dan Roberts had this to say about that:

    Beth, I came across your page while specifically looking for criticism of the new documentary (there isn’t much). I recently read Travis Christofferson’s book, “Tripping over the Truth: The Metabolic Theory of Cancer” – which kinda blew my mind and would seem to suggest that much of what we think about Cancer is antiquated…including many of the ideas put forth by Mukherjee in his book (and the documentary). If you haven’t gone down that road, I’d encourage you to take a look at a theory that hasn’t received nearly enough attention – but is very well founded in research and is showing very real promise in new treatment modalities. Take a look at http://www.singlecausesinglecure.org/book-release-tripping-truth-metabolic-theory-cancer/

    With any luck, the future holds promise for lifting us out of the dark ages of current treatments and prognosis, and many of us will experience less pain in dealing with the disease and its implications.

    • Beth L. Gainer had this to say about that:

      Hi Dan, thank you for commenting. I do think many of the current treatments can be problematic. I haven’t read Mukherjee’s book closely enough to glean antiquated ideas.

      I appreciate your opinion, and thank you once again for your thought-provoking comment.

  18. Paula Lindsey had this to say about that:

    Hi Beth,
    I too am a cancer survivor. I saw you post before I started watching the program (which I had recorded). I didn’t read it because I figured I needed to form my own opinion. I made it perhaps 1/2 through the first one “magic bullets” where they were following a little girl just diagnosed…not a good prognosis and the raw and true emotions of her parents were being documented. I just lost a 4 year old little “warrior” friend who battled “the monster” so hard. Then they showed other children….battling it. I decided at that point that this was not healthy for me. I thought about your post “Why I will NOT be watching Emperor” And so…I quickly erased episode one and two. I have watched parts of 3 (more about the here, now and future). But, If I feel that old familiar feeling of PTSD (I have also had issues and therapy). Then I will turn it off. I am all about educating myself about “the monster”….but being careful about the information I take in. There are things that our mind cannot “unsee” and this documentary is full of them, especially if you are still personally sensitive. Thank you for your very personal story and bravery to post it.

    • Beth L. Gainer had this to say about that:


      I totally understand why you didn’t want to read my post before you saw the series for yourself. After all, we each want to form our own opinions.

      I’m so sorry for the 4-year-old you knew who died. Totally heartbreaking. I admire your wanting to form your own opinion and giving the series a try. And there’s nothing wrong with discontinuing your watching of a show if it compromises your emotional health.

      Thank you for being brave and posting this comment.

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