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Inspired by mother's death, Ken Burns to make cancer documentary

After producing documentaries about the history of baseball, the Civil War, jazz and a variety of other topics, Ken Burns is turning his attention to cancer.

Burns will be teaming up with Dr. Siddhartha Mukherjee, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book "The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer." The series, to air on PBS stations in the spring of 2015, will be directed by Barak Goodman of the New York-based documentary film production company Ark Media.

In awarding "The Emperor of All Maladies" its 2011 prize for general nonfiction, the Pulitzer judges called the book "an elegant inquiry, at once clinical and personal, into the long history of an insidious disease that, despite treatment breakthroughs, still bedevils medical science."

Another fan is Sharon Percy Rockefeller, who read the book while she was being treated for colorectal cancer.

As it happens, Rockefeller is the chief executive of WETA, the public television and radio stations in Washington, D.C. She reached out to Burns and Mukherjee to get the documentary project going.

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"Cancer touches nearly everyone in this country," Rockefeller said in a statement announcing the project.

That includes Burns, who was only 3 when his mother, Lyla, was diagnosed with breast cancer.

"There was never a time when I didn't know my mother was sick," Burns said in this interview from KQED’s San Francisco Focus.

Lyla Burns died when Ken was 11, and her passing fueled what became his obsession with the past. "My whole work was an attempt to make people long gone come back alive," he said in that interview.

Mukherjee’s book also caught the attention of Laura Ziskin, who produced the films "Pretty Woman," "As Good as It Gets" and the three-part "Spider-Man" series, among others.

Ziskin was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2004 and wanted to produce a documentary about the disease. She didn’t get the chance before she died in 2011, but she did persuade Mukherjee to give the television and film rights for his book to Stand Up to Cancer (SU2C), the cancer research and awareness group she helped found in 2008.

In conjunction with the three-part, six-hour series, SU2C and WETA will launch a nationwide educational and outreach campaign to start a national conversation about the disease. The American Cancer Society and the American Assn. for Cancer Research, among others, will be part of that outreach effort.

Return to Science Now.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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