The best books for understanding why we haven’t cured cancer… yet

Who am I?

I’ve long been fascinated by how life unfolds from a single fertilized egg cell containing just one set of DNA, whether it’s a human, mouse, frog, worm, or anything else. While studying for my PhD in the Gurdon Institute in Cambridge, which combines brings together researchers working on development and cancer, and spending twelve years in science communication at Cancer Research UK, the world’s largest cancer research charity, I came to see cancer and development as two sides of the same coin: one process unfolding healthy life as egg becomes embryo, and the other ultimately bringing disease and death as a single cell grows into a deadly tumor. 


I wrote...

Rebel Cell: Cancer, Evolution, and the New Science of Life's Oldest Betrayal

By Kat Arney,

Book cover of Rebel Cell: Cancer, Evolution, and the New Science of Life's Oldest Betrayal

What is my book about?

Many of us think of cancer as a contemporary killer, a disease of our own making caused by our modern lifestyles. But that perception just isn’t true. Although it might be rare in many species, cancer is the enemy lurking within almost every living creature. Why? Because cancer is a bug in the system of life. And just like life, it keeps on evolving and evading our best attempts to beat it.

Rebel Cell: Cancer, Evolution and the Science of Life takes us from the dawn of life on planet earth right up to the present day to get to the heart of what cancer really is and how we can find better strategies for living with it or even one day driving it to extinction.

The books I picked & why

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Cross Everything: A Personal Journey Into the Evolution of Cancer

By Henry Scowcroft,

Book cover of Cross Everything: A Personal Journey Into the Evolution of Cancer

Why this book?

I worked alongside Henry at Cancer Research UK for many years and was devastated by the news that his partner Zarah had developed bladder cancer. Part memoir, part scientific odyssey, Cross Everything captures the story behind her treatment and why it ultimately failed to save her life, and what lessons can be learned to help others in the future.


The Cheating Cell: How Evolution Helps Us Understand and Treat Cancer

By Athena Aktipis,

Book cover of The Cheating Cell: How Evolution Helps Us Understand and Treat Cancer

Why this book?

When I interviewed Athena as part of the research for my own book Rebel Cell, I was immediately struck by the way in which she saw deeper, broader connections across the worlds of cancer research, behavioral science, and philosophy. From the strange, knobbly cactuses that she cultivates outside her office to the misbehaving cells in a deadly tumor, Cheating Cell is a fascinating journey through the origins and evolution of cancer from the perspective of a researcher at the cutting edge of the field.


Ageless: The New Science of Getting Older Without Getting Old

By Andrew Steele,

Book cover of Ageless: The New Science of Getting Older Without Getting Old

Why this book?

Cancer and ageing are inextricably linked, with the risk of cancer increasing significantly over the age of 60, so Andrew’s book about the biology of ageing is very much a companion piece to my own. He digs into the latest scientific research on why and how our cells, tissues, and bodies age, and neatly sifts fact from fiction when it comes to anti-ageing supplements and treatments. His most surprisingly simple piece of advice to help slow the ravages of time? Make sure you clean your teeth!


Adaptive Oncogenesis: A New Understanding of How Cancer Evolves Inside Us

By James Degregori, Michael Degregori (illustrator),

Book cover of Adaptive Oncogenesis: A New Understanding of How Cancer Evolves Inside Us

Why this book?

Written for a more academic audience than the other books on this list, although still highly readable, I’d recommend Adaptive Oncogenesis for anyone wanting to go deeper into the underlying evolutionary principles that explain why we get cancer when we do. James explores how the disease is fundamentally hardwired into our human biology, how the processes of evolution shape how cancer starts, grows, and spreads through the body, and new ideas for more effective approaches to treatment.


Improbable Destinies: Fate, Chance, and the Future of Evolution

By Jonathan B. Losos,

Book cover of Improbable Destinies: Fate, Chance, and the Future of Evolution

Why this book?

On the surface, this fascinating story about the evolutionary journeys of diverse animal species ranging from lizards to porcupines to field mice may seem a strange choice to include in a list of books about cancer, but in fact, it holds many important lessons about how evolution works and how likely we are to get the same outcomes if we ran the tape of time again. In turn, this is vital information underpinning our new understanding of cancer as an evolutionary process within the body, which can potentially be steered through the application of clever treatment strategies to bring about long-term control or even cures.


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in cancer, evolution, and evolutionary biology?

5,888 authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about cancer, evolution, and evolutionary biology.

Cancer Explore 70 books about cancer
Evolution Explore 86 books about evolution
Evolutionary Biology Explore 44 books about evolutionary biology

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like The Body Papers, Mortality, and The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks if you like this list.