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I’ll be giving a reading in Seattle tomorrow evening at the University of Washington bookstore.


“Cancer Follows Epic Trail From Dinosaurs to Tumbleweeds,” Manuela Hoelterhoff’s review for Bloomberg.

Kendall Powell gives her assessment for The Science Writers’ Handbook. Thanks to you both.


Third printing and a nice review in The Scientist.


There has been a second printing — and a review in The Economist.


Reviewed by David Quammen in today’s New York Times Book Review.


A Review in the N.Y. Post and a reading in Santa Fe

Reviewed today in the New York Post. I’ll give my first reading from the book on Tuesday, September 3, at Collected Works.


An essay for Bloomberg View and an excerpt in Slate

Published today online:

Cancer’s Primeval Power and Murderous Purpose in Bloomberg View


What Happened at Love Canal in Slate


Publication Day

What a day it has been, beginning with a review by Abigail Zuger in the New York Times, “Cancer’s Ordered Disorder.” It was followed by three others —  in the New York Journal of Books and on the web sites for the Atlantic and NPR. And a few days earlier, the book was reviewed, along with Clifton Leaf’s The Truth in Small Doses, in the Wall Street Journal. That one is restricted to subscribers, but it became briefly available when the Times site was hijacked this afternoon by the people calling themselves the Syrian Electronic Army. In response the Journal dropped its paywall, in solidarity, perhaps, but also with the hope of picking up some new subscribers.


Two more prepublication reviews

“A science journalist whose work frequently appears in the New York Times, Johnson began investigating cancer after his wife’s diagnosis with the disease. Here he shows that an entirely new understanding of cancer is evolving as scientists downplay dietary and environmental factors while studying the petrified tumors still attached to the crumbly bones of dinosaurs and early humans. Elegant writing from the author of The Ten Most Beautiful Experiments.” — Barbara Hoffert in Library Journal

“The New York Times’ science expert has written an obsessively researched jeremiad that examines both the forensics and the psychological repercussions of a cancer diagnosis. Johnson has several other titles to his name, but none are as personal or as heated as this one, which he started working on soon after his wife was diagnosed.” — Emily Landau in Reader’s Digest Canada

The publication date is now just 10 days away.


Early Reviews, Excerpts, and Amazon’s ‘Best Nonfiction’ List


The early news about the book has been encouraging — starred reviews in Publisher’s Weekly and Kirkus and serial rights sales to Discover Magazine and Scientific American in the United States and to the Daily Mail in the UK. I learned today that Amazon has included The Cancer Chronicles on its list of Best Nonfiction for August. The publication date comes almost at the end of the month, on August 27.

In the meantime I’ve had an interesting experience working with the producer for the audio version, Jill Whitesides-Woo, who sent me a long list of words whose pronunciations she wanted to double-check. Though my books have been recorded before, this was a first for me. I hadn’t appreciated how much work goes into an audio book even before the tape starts rolling. There was an interesting piece in the Times recently about how the increasing popularity of recorded books is creating jobs for actors.



An excerpt in Discover

The skull of an ancient Egyptian woman whose face was eaten off by cancer. From Eugen Strouhal, “Ancient Egyptian Case of Carcinoma”

The skull of an ancient Egyptian woman whose face was eaten off by cancer. From Eugen Strouhal, “Ancient Egyptian Case of Carcinoma”

Discover magazine bought first serial rights to the book, and an excerpt about the prehistoric origins of cancer will appear in the July-August issue. It is available online now for subscribers at the magazine’s website.

Update, July 14, 2013: The article is no longer behind the paywall and is available to all.



A new blog for Discover

Beginning today, I am writing a new blog, Fire in the Mind, for Discover Magazine. The name comes from one my books, and the subject matter will range across a variety of fields, including the science of cancer. Please come on over and follow along.


Another step closer to publication

Earlier this month I returned the copy-edited manuscript to the publisher, and finally the book is starting to feel real. Now officially called The Cancer Chronicles: Unlocking Medicine’s Deepest Mystery, it will be published in August. There is a page for the book now at Knopf/Random House and on Amazon.



Centrum Silver and Cancer

This week as I was making the final tweaks to The Cancer Chronicles before the manuscript goes into the copyediting stage, my eyes were drawn to a new study, widely reported in the press, about multivitamins and cancer. According to a double-blind, randomized controlled trial — the state of the art in epidemiology — taking a daily multivitamin lowered overall cancer risk by 8 percent.

At first that sounded great. A scientist quoted in the New York Times put it like this:

It is a small overall effect, but from a public health standpoint, it could be of great importance. Other than quitting smoking, there’s not much else out there that has shown it will reduce your cancer risk by nearly 10 percent.”

Alas, when you dig into the numbers, the results are less impressive. The subjects who participated in the study were physicians. For every thousand of them taking the daily vitamins there were 17 cancer cases per year. For those taking the placebo, there were 18.3 cases. Rounding and converting to more familiar terms, that it is a risk of 1.7 percent versus 1.8 percent.

As the excellent Health News Review website noted, that is “barely outside of the range that would be considered statistical noise.”

That didn’t keep the vitamin makers from quickly seizing upon the commercial opportunity. The day after the study was reported on the main page of the Times online, an ad appeared there for Centrum Silver. Clicking it led to a message on Centrum’s website:

BIG NEWS: Centrum Silver
was part of the recently published
landmark study evaluating the
long-term benefits of multivitamins!”

No further details were provided.


M.D. Anderson’s Chief Entrepreneur

At the annual meetings of the American Association for Cancer Research, what you notice right away is how every PowerPoint presentation begins with an obligatory conflict-of-interest disclosure slide. Many university researchers, including Nobel prizewinners, consult for pharmaceutical corporations and some even have their own startups. If they can develop a new targeted cancer treatment that staves off death a few months longer, their company might be snapped up by Genentech. The financial stakes are as high as anything in Silicon Valley.

At the AACR meeting I sat through last year, the disclosure requirement often met with resentment, and in The Cancer Chronicles (which is now in the editorial pipeline for publication next  year) I describe how some of the speakers expressed their displeasure. A few proudly declared, to a round of applause, that they had no conflicts. They were scientists not businessmen. Others recited their disclosures so quickly that you could barely catch a word. I was reminded of television car commercials where the announcer, in a chipmunk voice, speeds through the warranty disclaimers.

Some took a loftier approach. In the opening plenary session, a prominent researcher from Dana-Farber simply said that she had lost her slide and then proceeded with a fascinating presentation on sequencing the cancer genome. Her name was Lynda Chin, and I had all but forgotten the incident until a controversy arose earlier this year over an $18 million grant. By this time her husband and business partner, Ronald DePinho, had become president of the M.D. Anderson Cancer Treatment Center, and he had come under suspicion after the speedy approval of the grant to a group led by Dr. Chin. The money was awarded by the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas, whose chief scientific officer resigned in protest. Since then a number of other prominent scientists have followed him out the door complaining that the integrity of the grant process has been undermined by favoritism, politics, and commercialization.Aveo

When the issue first arose, husband and wife defended themselves in an interview with Nature. A day later Dr. DePinho was at the center of another controversy following reports that he had enthusiastically described the couple’s company, Aveo Oncology, on a CNBC stock market show called “Closing Bell with Maria Bartiromo.” When confronted Dr. DePinho apologized: “I am a public official in a position of trust, and I should never comment on any of my personal holdings or give investment advice . . . It was a mistake for me to do so on the CNBC interview.”

Since then AVEO’s stock has not done so well. Starting the year at around $17 a share it has dropped to less than half that. According to The Cancer Letter, Dr. DePinho and his family trust hold nearly 600,000 shares, which still comes to almost $5 million.

When my wife (now former wife) was diagnosed with a Stage 4 metastatic cancer, we made the customary pilgrimage to M.D. Anderson. It is an impressive place with some of the best doctors and researchers in the world. Many are tireless in their dedication to seek better treatments. What hadn’t occurred to us, however, was just how much money a few of them stand to make.