Laura Ziskin’s Dream Film Finally Fulfilled

An exclusive guest blog from Eric T. Rosenthal

Laura Ziskin — the legendary Hollywood producer who co-founded Stand Up To Cancer (SU2C), and served as executive producer of its first two telecasts in 2008 and 2010 — told me in 2011 that before she and her eight co-founders had envisioned raising cancer awareness and funds for cancer research via a one-hour celebrity-filled television special simulcast over numerous television and broadcast networks, she had wanted to produce a documentary about cancer.

In an interview appearing in Oncology Times, Ziskin said that she had been searching for the right materials and when she discovered The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer, published in 2010 by Siddhartha Mukherjee, MD, PhD, she urged SU2C to buy the film and television rights.

The acquisition by the Entertainment Industry Foundation on behalf of SU2C took place prior to Mukherjee being awarded the 2010 Pulitzer Prize, and at the time Ziskin had planned to produce the documentary herself.

But metastatic breast cancer claimed her life several months later, and Stand Up and Ziskin’s longtime producing partner, Pam Williams, now president of Laura Ziskin Productions, carried on with her dream.

After various connections involving, among others, SU2C, Washington DC PBS-station WETA’s CEO Sharon Percy Rockefeller, Mukherjee, and Ken Burns, the concept of a Burns-produced, Barak Goodman-directed six-hour, three-part series was finally announced in June 2013, and it aired on PBS stations this past week, on March 30, 31, and April 1, following two years of production.

Ken Burns Presents CANCER: THE EMPEROR OF ALL MALADIES a Film by Barak Goodman was a compelling documentary intertwining understandable information about science and medicine with poignant patient stories.  If nothing else, its explanation about cancer’s link to obesity could help spur preventive efforts similar to those related to smoking years before.

The documentary presented what we know, don’t know, and would like to know about the disease in a coherent context devoid of hype and promising hope based on quantifiable scientific discovery.

Much of the social media action during the broadcasts seemed to come from the choir of those already part of the cancer community, and whether word spreads to populations not already converted still remains to be seen, but certainly PBS and SU2C’s complementary science award initiative will go a long way in introducing medical and cancer research to a generation of young people perhaps not yet acquainted with the field.

Ziskin wanted Stand Up’s activities and projects to start a national conversation about cancer leading to a movement to restore cancer research as a national priority, and now it has a vivid visual document that transcends the highly lyrical print version from which it was born.

Ziskin would be proud, and viewers need to take heed.


Eric T. Rosenthal is special correspondent with MedPage Today. He also serves as the journalist member of CANCER: The Emperor of All Maladies Education Subcommittee.


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