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The Death of Cancer

After Fifty Years on the Front Lines of Medicine, a Pioneering Oncologist Reveals Why the War on Cancer Is Winnable--and How We Can Get There

Vincent T. DeVita Jr., M.D., and Elizabeth DeVita-Raeburn

Sarah Crichton Books

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ISBN10: 0374536481
ISBN13: 9780374536480

Trade Paperback

336 Pages



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For fifty years, Dr. Vincent T. DeVita Jr. has been a key player in clinical oncology: he has held just about every major position in the field, and he developed the first successful chemotherapy treatment for Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a breakthrough the American Society of Clinical Oncologists has called the top research advance in half a century of chemotherapy. The Death of Cancer is his illuminating and deeply personal look at the science and the history of one of the world’s most formidable diseases. In DeVita’s hands, even the most complex medical concepts are comprehensible.

Co-written with DeVita’s daughter, science writer Elizabeth DeVita-Raeburn, The Death of Cancer is a personal tale about the false starts and major breakthroughs, the strong-willed oncologists who clashed with conservative administrators (and one another), and the courageous patients whose willingness to test cutting-edge research helped those oncologists find potential treatments.

An emotionally compelling and informative read, The Death of Cancer is also a call to arms. DeVita believes that we’re well on our way to curing cancer but that there are things we need to change in order to get there. Mortality rates are declining, but America’s cancer patients are still being shortchanged—by timid doctors, by misguided national agendas, by compromised bureaucracies, and by a lack of access to information about the strengths and weaknesses of the nation’s cancer centers.

With historical depth and authenticity, DeVita reveals the true story of the fight against cancer.


Praise for The Death of Cancer

“For the past half century, [DeVita] has been at the forefront of the fight against one of the world’s most feared diseases, and in The Death of Cancer he has written an extraordinary chronicle . . . his conclusions are deeply unsettling . . . DeVita’s portrait of the way things were gives us a glimpse at what the future may look like.”—Malcolm Gladwell, The New Yorker

“An utterly absorbing memoir, fierce and frank . . . [T]he average reader will come away from the book with a superb basic education in all things oncological, from events on the cellular level to those in the rooms where research agendas are settled and checks are written.”The New York Times

“If ever a book about cancer could offer hope for the future, it’s this one.”New York Post

“In The Death of Cancer, Dr. DeVita (with his daughter Elizabeth DeVita-Raeburn) paints a portrait of a cancer industrial complex desperately in need of an overhaul, hampered by petty politics and power mongering, among much else . . . Powerful . . . There is no mistaking the value of the core idea he wants to convey: that doctors and researchers commit themselves anew to doing everything possible to help the patient.”The Wall Street Journal

“A fascinating memoir . . . Siddhartha Mukherjee called his Pulitzer Prize winning “The Emperor of All Maladies’’ a “biography” of the disease. “The Death of Cancer’’ is its obituary. We’re at “the beginning of the end,” DeVita declares, of the war on cancer.”The Boston Globe

“An authoritative review of the history of surgery and radiation therapy . . . Ultimately, DeVita ably shows that the development of oncology as a modern specialty is a very human story.”The New York Times Book Review

"[The Death of Cancer] takes the reader on a compelling journey through DeVita's struggles to advance cancer care, often in the face of colleagues hostile to new ideas and a political establishment that stymied progress . . . DeVita's insights into the operations of the FDA and the National Cancer Institute will hold a special appeal for oncology specialists and healthcare providers. He forcefully argues for dramatic changes in the oncology drug evaluation and approval system that would give the nation's cancer centers a more vital role and streamline the development of new therapies."—Oncology Live

"In this engaging, provocative, and deeply personal book, Vincent DeVita and Elizabeth DeVita-Raeburn provide a compelling insider's guide into the personalities, organizations, and key protagonists that provided the backdrop and impetus for the unprecedented campaign known as the war on cancer . . . The Death of Cancer presents a candid and disarming critique of the ways in which medicine, and specifically oncology, is regulated in the United States.”Science Magazine

“This riveting, beautifully written, and poignant memoir takes us on an enormous journey—from cancer’s past to its future. Vincent T. DeVita Jr. brings us behind the scenes to the invention of breakthrough therapies for some forms of cancer in the 1960s and ’70s. He also provides a much-needed manifesto for the future.”Siddhartha Mukherjee, Pulitzer Prize–winning author of The Emperor of All Maladies

The Death of Cancer is an astonishingly good read. Written by a cancer expert who happens to be a cancer survivor as well, it deftly explains the treatments that have turned this insidious disease from a death sentence into a manageable chronic condition for millions of people—and what yet remains to be done. I devoured the book in two sittings, struck, page after page, by its insight, honesty, compassion, and plain common sense.”David M. Oshinsky, Pulitzer Prize–winning author of Polio: An American Story

The Death of Cancer is a fascinating insider history of the long battle against one of the world’s most feared diseases, told with both insight and frustration, and ultimately with hope. This collaboration between the former National Cancer Institute director Vincent T. DeVita Jr. and his talented science writer daughter, Elizabeth DeVita-Raeburn, results in a wonderfully human portrait of the scientists who join the fight and a wonderfully smart look at the ways we might actually win it.”—Deborah Blum, New York Times–bestselling author of The Poisoner’s Handbook

“Superb science writing . . . One of the most absorbing and empowering science histories to hit the shelves in recent years.”Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

“DeVita blends crisp writing and a gift for explaining complicated scientific concepts clearly with deep knowledge, passion, and wit. The book is by turns entertaining and maddening, but always fascinating. Highly recommended”Library Journal (starred review)

"DeVita, an oncologist and professor at Yale School of Medicine, collaborates with his daughter DeVita-Raeburn on this engaging, informative, and inspiring history of DeVita’s prominent role in developing innovative cancer treatments . . . They also unveil some startling insights [and] offer salient advice . . . This remarkable memoir doesn’t just urge the public to have hope: it showcases the exciting evidence that we may finally be winning the war on cancer."Publishers Weekly (starred review)

Reviews from Goodreads


Read an Excerpt


When I was a child in the 1940s, long before I had any notion of becoming an oncologist, Aunt Violet, my godmother and a frequent visitor in my household, stopped coming over. My parents ceased talking about her,...

About the author

Vincent T. DeVita Jr., M.D., and Elizabeth DeVita-Raeburn

Vincent T. DeVita Jr., M.D., is a professor of medicine, epidemiology, and public health at the Yale School of Medicine. He was the director of the National Cancer Institute and the National Cancer Program from 1980 to 1988, when he joined Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center as the physician in chief. In 1993 he became the director of the Yale Cancer Center. At the NCI, he developed a cure for Hodgkin’s lymphoma with combination chemotherapy, proving that advanced cancers can be cured by drugs. He is a former president of the American Cancer Society and the coeditor of Cancer: Principles & Practice of Oncology, a textbook of cancer medicine.

Elizabeth DeVita-Raeburn has written about medicine, science, and psychology for many publications. She is the author of The Empty Room: Understanding Sibling Loss. She lives in New York City with her husband, the writer Paul Raeburn, and their two sons.

Yale Photography
(c) 2015 Nancy Crampton

Vincent T. DeVita's faculty profile