The First Cell by Azra Raza Review

The First Cell
Author: Azra Raza
Genre: Nonfiction, Memoir
Pages: 368
Publisher: HarperCollins India
Publication Date: August 20th 2021

Synopsis of The First Cell (Goodreads)

With the fascinating scholarship of The Emperor of All Maladies and the deeply personal experience of When Breath Becomes Air, a world-class oncologist examines the current state of cancer and its devastating impact on the individuals it affects — including herself.


In The First Cell, Azra Raza offers a searing account of how both medicine and our society (mis)treats cancer, how we can do better, and why we must. A lyrical journey from hope to despair and back again, The First Cell explores cancer from every angle: medical, scientific, cultural, and personal. Indeed, Raza describes how she bore the terrible burden of being her own husband’s oncologist as he succumbed to leukemia. Like When Breath Becomes Air, The First Cell is no ordinary book of medicine, but a book of wisdom and grace by an author who has devoted her life to making the unbearable easier to bear.

cancer is what i had been treating for two decades, yet until i shared a bed with a cancer patient, i had no idea how unbearably painful a disease it could be.

azra raza, the first cell

My thoughts on The First Cell

When I saw this book and read the synopsis that an oncologist wrote this book whose husband tragically died of cancer, this book just called my name and I knew I had to read it.

This book is partly a memoir but also the author provides a raw reality of the scenario of cancer research. A book that is quite similar to this book is When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalithini.

Since the author is an oncologist herself, she is quite familiar with the dire situation of the cancer research at the moment. She accounts many issues about the misdirection that the cancer research is going. For example, despite the millions and millions of dollars that is being invested in the cancer drug development, the results are practically none. No new drug has been successfully been developed and it seems it’s improbable to even develop one. Clearly, new drug development is not the right way to fight this disease.

First few pages just crushed me when she showed all the negatives of the cancer research and how hopeless the situation is. She starts off very pessimistic and realistically. But then she also offers the solution and shows us a way that can change the cancer research in the future. Basically, she says that this field of research needs change and it needs it asap.

The thing I loved about this book was that she showed bravely that she’s deeply affected by her patients and gets attached to them. She cried when her patients were suffering. And my God, I cried so many times reading this book. It was absolutely heartbreaking getting to know the patients well and their sufferings.

using chemotherapy, immune therapy, and stem cell transplant to cure cancer, as someone has aptly observed, is like beating the dog with a baseball bat to get rid of its fleas. why is this the best we can do?

azra raza, the first cell

You can tell she is deeply unhappy with the situation of the cancer treatment right now. She wants to do more than treat the patients with just with palliation.

One more thing, this book is extremely well written. The language is poetic and beautiful but also manages to articulate the medical stuff clearly. There were so many sentences and passages that literally made me stop reading and stare at the wall for 5 minutes. Like I felt the world had stopped spinning. They were impactful, and absolutely heartbreaking.

Overall, I think The First Cell by Azra Raza is one of the finest books written on cancer, especially given the sad fact that the author is an oncologist who saw her husband die of cancer. While reading this book I could feel that the author had first hand experience.

I will highly recommend this book. This is a book that is hard to read but I think it is completely worth the read.

My rating: 5 out of 5 stars

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