Blood Matters by Masha Gessen is what I imagine you would get if you were to immerse yourself in the inner monologue of a fact-obsessed individual’s decision-making process. The book opens with Gessen learning their mother has died of breast cancer, followed by a jump in time to Gessen getting a positive BRCA1 mutation test result. These two events set the tone for the book in which Gessen examines through the past and present lens how genetics, and our knowledge of our own genetics, has shaped how we view ourselves, the world, and our connections to each other. In doing so, Gessen lends a perspective not often seen in journalistic or scientific writing — the Jewish one. As readers, we get to learn about scientific concepts in the frame of Jewish history and anecdotes, as well as how these concepts and the ideologies born from them have reverberated through history. For me, Gessen’s need to know all the facts before making a life-changing medical decision was extremely relatable, and I think many others will find it easy to empathize with Gessen’s experience(s).
The Philadelphia Chromosome: A Genetic Mystery, a Lethal Cancer, and the Improbable Invention of a Lifesaving Treatment by Jessica Wapner
Whereas my last review was for a book focused more on the individuals and retelling of an important historical period, this next book seamlessly blends the stories of the individuals and researchers with that of the science they were involved in. The Philadelphia Chromosome: A Genetic Mystery, a Lethal Cancer, and the Improbable Invention of a Lifesaving Treatment by Jessica Wapner tells a detailed story that spans from the discovery of a DNA mutation to the creation and implementation of a therapy to treat individuals afflicted with the cancer caused by said mutation. Wapner paints a very vivid scene of one individual who was diagnosed with the cancer, a type of leukemia, going in for a check-up following treatment with the therapy that could save his life. As a scientist who is used to working with blood samples, I know that bone marrow samples must be retrieved during check-ups for leukemia patients. Even still, when Wapner colorfully describes the gruesome bone marrow retrieval process, I’ll admit that I got a bit queasy. Eventually, we are invited into the immense relief that individual experienced when he was told the therapy was working and he had years more to live that he had never anticipated having. The story-telling here and in the rest of the book is masterful in the sense that we begin to fully appreciate the plight of these leukemia patients and just how important science and the resulting therapy was for them. Continue reading…