Ken Burns releases new documentary on cancer research

by Kelsey Fleming

News Editor

On Thurs., March 30, PBS aired Ken Burns’ Cancer: The Emperor of All Maladies — a three-part, six-hour television special. Based on the 2010 Pulitzer Prize-winning book by Siddhartha Mukherjee, this special casts light on cancer research and the steps doctors are taking to help cure cancer once and for all.

For over thirty years, Burns has made documentary films that explore a wide range of topics. Burns decided to take part in this project because “there was not a moment of consciousness, from age 2 or 3, that I wasn’t aware that something was desperately wrong [with my mother]. And she died just a few months short of my 12th birthday. I had no childhood. But all that I do for a living is wake the dead … So, taking on this project is having a conversation with my mom … [It] allowed me to just dig deeply and emotionally into the past, and that was a way, without consciously being aware of it, of communicating with my mom.”


Throughout the documentary, Director Barak Goodman discusses the new and innovative ways doctors are trying to curtail cancer. Today, doctors are able to cure approximately 80% of childhood cancers, and over the past two decades, cancer mortality rates have declined by 20%. Goodman stated that cancer is full of “zigzags and failures and intuition and guesswork and luck.” He asserted, “There is this temptation to see these ups and downs as a zero-sum game, and you’re back where you started. But every time we fail, we get closer, and we learn from it.”

The documentary follows the lives of several people, including one woman with breast cancer and a young boy with blood cancer and a muscle tumor. Spending months with patients, the filmmakers learned about the choices available for cancer patients today and the hard decisions families must make on a daily basis. Goodman expressed, “It was important to all of us not to shy away from the ugliness of cancer and the toll it takes.”

Within the coming years, many hope and pray cancer will become a curable disease. Goodman commented, the film is “a good-news story. Where we end up after the three episodes and six hours is a place of a lot of hope, and hard-won hope—hope that has come at the cost of a lot of lives.”
(Sources:, PBS, USA Today)

Categories: Culture, Web Exclusive

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