Book Review: The First Cell: And The Human Costs of Pursuing Cancer to the Last by Azra Raza (5/5)

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Rating: 5/5 Stars

This book is good for: People with a basic understanding of Biology/interest in modern medicine, Pre-med students, students interested in research, anyone interested in end of life care or health policy.

This book is not good for: A light/fun casual read. Do NOT send this to a cancer patient or their family as a gift. Do NOT read this book if you’re not in a good headspace.

Read this book if you liked: Being Mortal, The Emperor of all Maladies, books by Malcolm Gladwell, Books by Yuval Noah Harari, Medical research. Basic understanding of medicine or patient experience is needed to appreciate the scope of what this book is saying.

This is a difficult book the read for multiple reasons, but that doesn’t make it any less needed. In fact, I believe that it’s one of the most important books that I’ve read this year because of that fact. As a current bone marrow transplant survivor myself (not for Cancer, but a similar blood disorder) and someone that is around people with Cancer quite frequently, I found myself often having to put the book down because of the sheer amount of information and the (quite frankly) depressing conclusions Dr. Raza presents. Each chapter is a different story of a patient from diagnosis to death, detailing all of the ways that modern oncology failed them along the way and why cancer research is the way it is. But what makes this book so potent is the humanity and deep sense of empathy in the stories, especially when it comes to Dr. Raza’s own experience of losing her husband to cancer. These stories were incredibly valuable to the bleak information being presented — Dr. Raza isn’t telling us the truth to make us depressed, but rather to make us understand the real-life human toll of the situation and how desperately it must improve.

I was also really impressed by how much information I learned about Cancer that I didn’t previously know. The public often thinks of Cancer as one singular disease, when in fact it’s almost 200 different diseases all with thousands of cells that have thousands of different mutations. For the first time, I feel like I have a solid grasp on the realities of Cancer — that it’s a truly impossible disease that is insanely complex and unique to each patient. I’ve often told people that I personally don’t ‘believe’ in a cure for cancer in the way that it’s often described — or curing cancer once a tumor is already present — and this book further solidified that viewpoint for me. The book also spends a lot of time highlighting the problematic practices in cancer research and why new cancer drugs or individualized therapies are often failed or unhelpful. I had no idea that the failure rates were so high, but after reading this book I feel like I had a solid understanding of not only how research works, but why it doesn’t translate to treatment options.

Dr. Azra isn’t only a critic though. Alongside the stories of patients and critics of the system, she offers up lots of solutions — specifically targeting cancer before it even develops. As a researcher at Columbia University studying pre-leukemia, Azra has created the largest bank of tissue samples in the world that will be used to help patients in the future. Her main point is simple: focus on the beginning, not the end.

As a patient myself, I really appreciated that Azra was so honest about her own feels — guilt, failure, and grief. She also repeatedly gives her patients family members to the ability to tell their own stories in their own words, something that I’ve never read before and I thought was a truly beautiful way to include the patients in the message of the book. Not only is Azra a wonderful writer, but she is so wholly human. What makes this book so difficult to read isn’t the statistics, although they’re disturbing, it’s the human pain presented in the stories. I cried a lot while reading this book, but I think that proves that she made her point. The book is good because it’s content is difficult, but only when the failures are realized and accepted can medical science begin to move into a better future.

Kathryn Poe is a Creative Writing Major living in Columbus, OH

Non-Fiction Books. Health Care. Politics. Inquires:,

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