NEW YORK — Two prominent television figures whose lives were significantly altered by the cancer deaths of loved ones are helping turn a Pulitzer Prize-winning book on the history of the disease into a six-hour documentary.
Filmmaker Ken Burns announced recently that he’s collaborating with Siddhartha Mukherjee, author of “The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer,” for a film based on the book. The documentary, spread over three nights, is scheduled to air on PBS in spring 2015.
They’re collaborating with Stand Up to Cancer, an advocacy group co-founded by Katie Couric, to prepare an educational outreach program to go with the documentary. Stand Up to Cancer obtained film rights to Mukherjee’s book two years ago and agreed Burns was the best filmmaker to make the subject come alive, Couric said.
Burns’ mother died of cancer when he was 11, and he said that experience has guided his life’s work. Couric’s husband, Jay Monahan, died of colon cancer in 1998 and her sister Emily died of pancreatic cancer in 2001.
“It’s perfect timing for this” documentary, said Couric, who hosts a daytime talk show. “There’s an insatiable hunger for information about these forms of cancer and for treatment options as well.”
Sharon Percy Rockefeller, president of the PBS station WETA in Washington, read Mukherjee’s book while she was being treated for cancer and urged Burns to bring it to life on film, he said.
The book combines a history of cancer, case studies of patients and a review of research toward finding a cure or making the disease manageable through treatment. Burns said he will weave all three threads into his documentary while searching for fresh case study material. There’s also a story to tell about scientific advancements since the book was published in 2010. People are much more inclined to fight back against cancer now than in years past, he said.
“The people who had it in the early days were kept sequestered,” he said. “You kept them in the attic and didn’t talk about it. It was a death sentence. Goodbye.”
Burns said if a patient sees the documentary and is given hope, if someone young is inspired to join the scientific community, and if someone asks an extra question or two when visiting a doctor, “this is a great thing.”
“If we don’t, we submit to the terrors of this disease.”
Burns’ mother, Lyla, learned she had cancer when her son was 3 but lived until she was a few months shy of his 12th birthday, when she was 42. It took a psychologist to explain to him how his life’s work involved bringing people like Abraham Lincoln and Jackie Robinson to life through his films, when the one person he wanted most to bring back from the dead was his mother.
He’s grateful to people who are allowing their cancer experiences to be filmed, including one close friend who has brain cancer.
Burns said he recently sent a copy of “The Emperor of All Maladies” to actress Angelina Jolie, who had two healthy breasts removed for fear that she stood a good chance of developing cancer. Stories about well-known people and how they are dealing with cancer issues may help average patients seeking treatment
Film producer Laura Ziskin, another Stand Up to Cancer founder, was instrumental in acquiring the film rights to Mukherjee’s book before she died of breast cancer two years ago. Stand Up to Cancer will organize screenings in advance of the documentary’s airings and is developing a school curriculum to go with it.
There was a time, Couric said, that memories were too fresh for her to read a book like Mukherjee’s. Now she said she’s wrapped up in her advocacy and push to find a cure.
“The documentary will be very helpful,” she said. “It’s not all about poor outcomes. It’s going to be about things we are learning about the nature of this disease.”
Genentech, Cancer Treatment Centers of America, David H. Koch and Siemens have helped fund the project.