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The Book

Published August 27, 2013 by Alfred A. Knopf, New York,  and The Bodley Head, London. Finalist for The Royal Society science book prize.

“A masterpiece of clarity.” — New York Journal of Books

“Gripping, illuminating and affecting. . . . Perhaps not since Susan Sontag has anyone put cancer so firmly and eloquently in its place.” — Abigail Zuger, The New York Times

“Among a small cluster of very good recent books on cancer. . . . Johnson’s stands out as especially illuminating, forceful and, in its own quiet way, profound. . . .  Not only is Johnson an excellent explainer, but unlike some of our most esteemed explainers, he can really write. He knows that economy, poetry and rhythm are to be valued as well as clarity, even in a book of science. . . . The scientific story Johnson tells, in so few pages, is large and rich. The personal story is a sad and anguished one. . . . George Johnson himself doesn’t anguish on the page, doesn’t emote, makes no claims on our sympathy for himself. But he earns that sympathy, as a writer and a man, by producing such a forthright and human and exhilaratingly gloomy book.” — David Quammen, The New York Times Book Review

The Cancer Chronicles is a rich and sweeping exploration of the history, prehistory and future of cancer, all anchored in harrowing personal experience. Surprisingly — and especially gratifying to me as a former biologist — it is also an appreciation of cancer as a cellular strategy and a rebellion against the tyranny of the multicellular body. Completely accessible to the lay reader, this is a book for anyone whose life has been touched by cancer, which is just about everyone.” – Barbara Ehrenreich

“A highly captivating book that meticulously explains the current scientific understanding of cancer. . . . In The Cancer Chronicles, George Johnson has captured the sense of curiosity and empathy that drives scientists to tackle this calamitous disease.” Almut Schulze, Times Literary Supplement (London).

“The ideal primer for those who want to know the real story of cancer, rather than the version that is usually presented in the media.”
The Economist

 From the jacket flap:

When the woman he loved was diagnosed with a metastatic cancer, science writer George Johnson embarked on a journey to learn everything he could about the disease and the people who dedicate their lives to understanding and combating it. What he discovered is a revolution under way—an explosion of new ideas about what cancer really is and where it comes from. In a provocative and intellectually vibrant exploration, he takes us on an adventure through the history and recent advances in cancer research that will challenge everything you thought you knew about the disease.

Deftly excavating and illuminating decades of research, he reveals what we know and don’t know about cancer, showing why a cure remains such a slippery concept. We follow him as he combs through the realms of epidemiology, clinical trials, laboratory experiments and scientific hypotheses—rooted in every discipline from evolutionary biology to game theory and physics. Cogently extracting fact from a towering canon of myth and hype, he describes tumors that evolve like alien creatures inside the body, paleo-oncologists who uncover petrified tumors clinging to the skeletons of dinosaurs and ancient human ancestors, and the surprising reversals in science’s comprehension of the causes of cancer, with the foods we eat and environmental toxins playing a lesser role. Perhaps most fascinating of all is how cancer borrows natural processes involved in the healing of a wound or the unfolding of a human embryo and turns them, ju-jitsu like, against the body.

Throughout his pursuit, Johnson illuminates the human experience with elegiac grace, bearing witness to the punishing gauntlet of consultations, surgeries, targeted therapies and other treatments. He finds compassion, solace and community among a vast network of patients and professionals committed to the fight and wrestles to comprehend the cruel randomness cancer metes out in his own family. For anyone whose life has been effected by cancer and found themselves asking, “why?” this book provides a new understanding. In good company with the works of Atul Gawande, Siddhartha Mukherjee, and Abraham Verghese, The Cancer Chronicles is endlessly surprising and as radiant in its prose as it is authoritative in its eye-opening science.


GEORGE JOHNSON writes regularly about science for The New York Times. He has also written for National Geographic, Slate, Discover, Scientific American, Wired, and The Atlantic, and his work has been included in The Best American Science Writing. A former Alicia Patterson fellow, he has received awards from PEN and the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and his books were twice finalists for the Royal Society’s book prize. He is a cohost of “Science Faction” on and writes the blog “Fire in the Mind” for Discover. He lives in Santa Fe and can be found on the Web at


“A fascinating compilation of selected discoveries in cancer research. . . .The author has deftly organized and presented vast amounts of scientific information so that they support the personal chronicle; every example seems to fit. In addition, the book is artfully written. Throughout it, Johnson’s use of metaphor provides novel descriptions that are interesting to any reader, whether seasoned in the science of cancer or a novice. . . . The book succeeds because Johnson’s writing conveys his passion about the science.”
Mary L. Disis, Science

“Johnson writes with imaginative flair about the whole range of the cancer experience, from nutritional puzzles, clinical trials and wounds that do not heal to the endlessly complex ways a cell can create ‘something alien inside you.’” Manuela Hoelterhoff, Bloomberg

“George Johnson, like a science-writing alchemist, transforms his fear — fueled by his wife Nancy’s metastatic-cancer diagnosis — into gold, in the form of a well-written and thoroughly researched exploration of the current state of cancer science. Johnson journeys through labs bent on cracking cancer’s code, ferreting out its causes, its molecular eccentricities, and its treatment. His wife’s struggle with the disease serves as a constant touchstone without subsuming his sober treatment of evidence, data, and reason.” Bob Grant, The Scientist

“A wonderful and yet very sad book. It weaves together an immense amount of detail on this devastating disease with a very personal and touching story.” — Royal Society book prize judges

“tender, life-affirming . . . It is intriguing stuff, expertly – and touchingly – assembled by Johnson who retains a humane, wry perspective of his subject while never descending into mawkishness or sentimentality.” — Robin McKie, The Guardian

“Incisive . . . The Cancer Chronicles delivers an astute, vivid biography of perhaps the oldest, most complex disease on Earth, and a poignant account of a contemporary couple’s struggle against it.” John Wilwol,

“A provocative and also a personal exploration of the myths and misunderstandings that surround this most formidable enemy to our health and well being.” Mother Jones

“This compact, elegant book is really two books, or even three: a memoir of a year in Cancerland, a shrewd investigation into what’s known (and not known) about this still-mysterious condition; and, peeping out between the other two, a gripping account of coming to terms with living in a universe that includes a deadly disease with no predictable cause. Decades from now, cancer may be a wholly curable disease. Until then, everyone who is concerned about cancer — that is, every thinking adult — should read The Cancer Chronicles.”
Charles C. Mann
Author, 1491 and 1493

“An enormously well-researched and somewhat iconoclastic look at cancer and cancer research. It provides a rare and highly readable view of what we know – and what we don’t know – about the disease.”
Bert Vogelstein
Director, Ludwig Center at the Sydney Kimmel-Johns Hopkins Cancer Center

“It is very rare to find a writer who can weave a compelling narrative that combines the intrinsically fascinating nature of cancer with its peculiar horror. George Johnson has penetrated the arcane world of cancer biology and oncology, and exposed the bewilderment and frustration felt by researchers and clinicians grappling to understand and control this pervasive disease. He makes a convincing case that the field is floundering because we are thinking about the problem the wrong way. Cancer touches every family on the planet. For those who want to gain some serious insights into the subject, this book is a great place to start.”
Paul Davies
Principal Investigator, Center for Convergence of Physical Science and Cancer Biology, Arizona State University

“This elegant and insightful chronicle is at once intensely personal and meticulously studious . . . extraordinary scholarship delivered with an intimate poignancy.” Publisher’s Weekly, starred review

“A thorough and nuanced presentation . . . refreshing in its honest appraisal that the war is far from over.” Kirkus, starred review

Order a copy
Order from Collected Works Bookstore, Santa Fe, New Mexico (my favorite independent)