The First Cell and the Human Costs of Pursuing Cancer to the Last by Azra Raza


The First Cell book cover

Azra Raza makes a bold claim in The First Cell and backs it up. “The art of medicine, once based purely on experience and observation, a hostage to tradition, gradually evolved into a practice increasingly driven by scientific evidence. More recently, it has undergone an unexpected transition by morphing into a monstrous business enterprise” (144). Raza is not against funding for cancer research as she has made this her profession and knows the personal costs as her husband died because of cancer.

Her frustration revolves around how funds are distributed and how research is separated from treatment. “The funding agencies continue to reward basic research in petri dishes and mouse models that bear little relevance for humans” (143). She is not alone in this as she quotes another critic, oncologist Vinay Prasad, who claims that the $700 billion spent on health care still leaves practiced medicine occurring based on scant evidence.

Raza has a solution. “The two immediate steps should be a shift from studying animals to studying humans and a shift from chasing after the last cancer cell to developing the means to detect the first cancer cell” (48). She is after the causes for cancer instead for treating it after cancer has been diagnosed.

Azra Raza — Learn more about her work here.

The books tries to add a personal side with stories, but many go on too long and Raza is very good at quoting other people saying how incredible she is. “Call Azar, mom. She is on the cutting edge of cancer. I want her involved in my care” (199) is an example that happens often and her “aw, shucks” at all this praise is thin since she puts it in the book so often. Plus, she does not need this type of support as she makes a strong argument on her own.

Having watched my six-year-old die from neuroblastoma cancer, this is personal for me. We had the opportunity to have a researcher who was a practitioner work with him after his first relapse and he made good progress for a year before succumbing. That connection between research and practice is what Raza wants, and I think she is right. My son lived a happy year because of it and from what she learned, this doctor may help other children live much longer lives.