Crowdsourcing for a good cancer text

Among the many joys plaguing me recently is learning that I get to teach, for the first time for me and for the first time at my university, I get to teach a course in cancer biology this spring term. I’m not totally unprepared for this — I was on a cancer training grant for about 5 years, got some basic education in clinical oncology as well as the basic science of the processes, and really, it’s all about gene regulation, cell cycle control, signal transduction, and specification and commitment, all stuff that is eminently familiar to a developmental biologist. But still, you can guess what I’ll be doing over Christmas break: cramming for one of the most depressing subjects in the world.

Anyway, here’s what I need. I’m going to have to order books for the students next month: the prerequisite for the course is simply cell biology and major status, so I need something that’s not too advanced, but has a good overview of mechanisms. This will not be a course in clinical oncology, but on the cell biology of cancer…but still, students will expect at least a little bit of direct medical relevance (I’ll probably ask around to find a local doctor who’d be willing to give a guest lecture, too). I am not a medical doctor, and this will not be a course to give out medical advice at all.

So, request #1 is for a good solid intermediate level cancer textbook.

Request #2 is for me: I’m going to have to dive into a crash cramming event in December/January to bring myself up to speed on current developments in the field, so I can be smarter than the students. What are some good review texts for a guy who knows a fair amount of biology but took his last course in oncology about 15 years ago?

(Also on Sb)


  1. Dimitris says

    When I was an undergraduate (in the UK), we were using Molecular Cell Biology, by Lodish et al. Though it is not cancer specific, it has many of the insights your students will need, along with many references to specific cancers and how they develop. It is not super advanced cancer, but it should have enough info for a beginners’ course, while also being useful enough for other modules.

  2. cacgtg says

    I quite like “Human Molecular Genetics” by Tom Strachan and Andrew P. Read. This textbook isn’t exclusively dedicated to cancer, but the chapter on cancer genetics gives a great overview of the disease. Also,I would definitely check out “Hallmarks of Cancer: The Next Generation” by Hanahan D, Weinberg RA. Cell. 2011 Mar 4;144 (5):646-74.

  3. John says

    This article is just about perfect:

    In 2000, Hanahan and Weinberg published a landmark article in which they described the “hallmarks of cancer” – six biological capabilities acquired during the multi-step development of human tumors. It went on to become the most-cited Cell article of all time. In a follow-up article this year, the authors revisit their conceptual framework for cancer biology, incorporating the remarkable progress in cancer research that was made over the last decade.

  4. Kevin says

    I’m a member of the American Medical Writer’s Association. As such, I get access to MD Consult, which is an online database that includes searchable textbooks.

    Abeloff’s Clinical Oncology, 4th Edition, is what they offer as the general oncology book.

    Section A is “Biology And Cancer” and includes chapters on:
    1. Molecular Tools in Cancer Research
    2. Intracellular Signalling
    3. The Cellular Microenvironment and Metastases
    4. Control of the Cell Cycle
    5. Cell Life and Death
    6. Cancer Immunology
    7. Stem Cells and Cell Differentiation
    8. Vascular and Interstitial Biology of Tumors.

    Section B is Genesis of Cancer.
    Section C is Diagnosis
    Section D is Prevention and Treatment.

  5. Rev. BigDumbChimp says

    I’d think Orac would be a good source for suggestions on this.

    Seems it would be in his wheelhouse.

  6. says

    “Clinical” in the title makes me shy away, but those chapter titles are very promising.

    What I’m going to do in the next week is ask for review copies for a couple of titles (one of the perks of the professorship — free books!) and see what looks good.

  7. Kevin says

    If someone at the university has access to MD Consult, you can review it online and save the shipping costs.

    Though I’m sure you’ll want the dead tree version of whatever you choose, no sense in wasting all that gas if it ends up not meeting your needs.

  8. CompulsoryAccount7746 says


    Maybe not of use for your course, but people who’ve read it seem to like The Emperor of All Maladies.

    It’s alright. It’s less about cancer itself than the long history of humanity not understanding it, and the extreme/desperate treatments along the way.

    Here’s a 2-page excerpt of just how clueless medicine was in 1947.

  9. Sam G. says

    I took a very similar course last year and we used Biology of Cancer by Weinberg. It included many signalling pathways but not as much on cell cycle control (we went straight from the notes on that section).

  10. Crommunist says

    I went to the World Lung Cancer Conference in Amsterdam this year. Cancer oncology is a cinch. Just mention the acronyms ‘KRAS’ (pronounced ‘kay-razz’) and ‘EGFR'(ee-gee-eff-are) a lot, put up some slides with PCR results on them, and ask if there are any questions. You’ll probably win some kind of award.

  11. 'Tis Himself, OM says

    It’s a little dated but William Burrough’s Tropic of Cancer is highly regarded in certain quarters.

  12. Adrian says

    The Robbins textbook, as suggested before, has an outstanding chapter on Neoplasia and separate chapters for each organ system that you could use to get examples if/when needed and fun pictures.

  13. Richard Austin says

    Since I work specifically in a cancer research and treatment center, I’ve got some feelers out to some of the oncologists and PIs here; I’ll see if I can’t get something back. My easy go-to people are on vacation until Monday, but I still have a few PhDs up my sleeves. I don’t know anyone specifically in our masters program or I’d ask them, but I might know some people who do.

    I’ll try to follow up when I get something.

  14. Biomedikal Gangsta says

    I’m surprised to be the first to mention this, but requiring already-strapped students to spend >$100 on a textbook on an undergraduate survey course such as this is entirely unnecessary at best.

    As a PhD candidate, I TA’d your old mentor’s & all-around wonderful human being’s undergrad Developmental Biology course here at the University of Utah last year, & was extremely pleased to find that he did not require his students to purchase any textbooks at all. The course consisted entirely of his own Gilbert-derived slides and a literature package gleaned from primarily review articles available online.

    For a fantastic review, start by reading “Hallmarks of Cancer: The Next Generation” (Hanahan & Weinberg. Cell 2011. 144(5):646-674) & run from there.

    PLEASE, PZ! Don’t enable the education-industrial publishing complex to further screw your students by forcing them to buy some ridiculously overpriced glossy picture-saturated absolutely redundant CD-ROM and online content-containing absurdity when the identical information can be had for free!

  15. eandh says

    If you’re handing out packages of photocopies and not requiring students to pay more than the cost to photocopy – you’re probably breaking copyright law, and I say this as a prof. Our experience is that once you pay the licensing fees required, “custom courseware” which is what those packages get labelled at the bookstore, costs the students very little less than a bound textbook, and on the whole students prefer to get a book they can keep/resell.

  16. says

    The Cell, A Molecular Approach, 5th Edition by Cooper and Hausman.

    It’s not a cancer textbook per se but it does cover all the basic science topics mentioned and has a good concluding chapter on cancer. Book does a nice job with cell cycle and apoptosis.

    Students might have already purchased it for another molecular biology course. I use this text for Medical students.

  17. me says

    After finding that the textbook reps have jerked us around with our textbook orders, my only textbook recommendation involves boxing gloves and/or crowbars.

    We wanted a simple chem text that covered certain topics, so the rep offers a “custom book” with the unneeded chapters taken out. He asks what chapters we need and we tell him- chapters 1-8, chapters 11-15, and the first half of chapter 18. So we get a book with exactly those chapters. No appendices with all the tables of required data. No table of contents. No “standard periodic table inside the front cover”; in fact, there’s only one periodic table in the whole flipping book, and it doesn’t name any of the elements on it.

    For the other chemistry course, we order a new edition of the old text. Sales rep says it’ll be significantly cheaper if we bundle it with IDIOT(tm) brand software. I say, fine, thinking that I can tell my students just not to bother using it. Textbook arrives with all the end-of-chapter excercises stripped out, because the students are expected to access them online using IDIOT(tm) brand software, which they only get to access for 8 months.

  18. Biomedikal Gangsta says

    @ eandh: Not packages of photocopies; purely online material that students can choose to either print out or simply access online. Copyright is not an issue if the material is accessed through the University’s own purchased journal subscriptions.

    Might be a problem if the University does not have extensive enough access, but I the University of Minnesota ought to be plenty well connected, right?

  19. jakc says

    Duh – the only cancer text you and your students need is the holy Bible. Plus, they can use the same book for other biology and geology courses. I’m just glad that you heathen Darwinicists are finally admitting that you don’t know stuff, unlike us good Christians who know everything.

  20. Mike says

    I’ll add a voice supporting Weinberg’s “The Biology of Cancer”. I used his book as an undergrad a few years back and now I’m TAing a Berkeley course using the same book. I’ve been happy with it both times.

  21. Dancersingenesis says

    The postgraduate cancer seminar series I went to used Weinberg, but that was because the course coordinator had written the Japanese translation and wanted to flog it to the students. Good text anyways.

  22. LRA says

    Hey, PZ!

    Don’t have much to add here as there are quite a number of good recommendations above, but it might be a good project in your class to have students research a specific cancer on pubmed and report on it.

    Another route might be to have students connect virology and cancer, genetics and cancer, or (even) neuroscience and cancer. Interdisciplinary approaches are all the rage these days.

    Hope that is helpful! :D

  23. says

    Maybe your course on cancer biology should start with the maked mole rat. The only critter on this planet that is completely resistant to cancer, as far as we know. Extremely long-living, and doesn’t feel pain either.

  24. sparky-ca says

    Hi, one of my customer sites is Genetech, and they have outstanding, easy to understand basic biology of cancers on their website.I used it to teach myself basic cancer biology, as I’m an optics engineer by traing Plus the send out reagent kits free to universities and high schools for experiments.

  25. petronicus says

    Hello, first time commenting.

    Here are some great free online texts from the National Center for Biotechnology Information:

    Dynamics of Cancer: Incidence, Inheritance, and Evolution–good basics

    Holland-Frei Cancer Medicine, 6th edition–a clinical perspective, for that little bit of medical relevance. It’s a little outdated (2003) and can only be searched, not browsed.

    Cancer Syndromes–a book on single-gene cancers; this could be useful for exploring cancer through specific syndromes, as these (being single-gene) are of unusually well-known etiology

    I don’t know if any of these could be the main text for the class, if not maybe they could provide good supplemental material.

    I think reproduction for educational purposes, like assembling a package for students or posting copies to a class website, is OK for all the resources there, although the publisher’s permission might have to be sought beforehand. In the case of Dynamics of Cancer: Incidence, Inheritance, and Evolution, it’s actually available on a Creative Commons license, so you can do pretty much whatever with that one.

    I friggin’ love the NCBI Bookshelf. I actually failed to study enough for my pharmacotherapy exam because I was browsing it.

  26. lordshipmayhem says

    When it comes to cancer, my best textbook is the following order from Admiral Bull Halsey to his carrier commanders: “ATTACK REPEAT ATTACK”.

    I can’t recommend any good textbook for you, but if there’s anything else we can do, just sing out.

  27. Pierre H. Vachon says


    Cancer medicine 8th ed. :

    I use this as source textbook for my own cancer biology classes to pharmacology and/or biochemistry undergrads.

    Here’s also a few reviews to start you off:

    Malumbres M, Barbacid M. (2007) Cell cycle kinases in cancer. Curr Opin Genet Dev 17(1):60-5.

    Singh A, Settleman J. (2010) EMT, cancer stem cells and drug resistance: an emerging axis of evil in the war on cancer. Oncogene 29(34):4741-51.

    Carmeliet P, Jain RK. (2011) Molecular mechanisms and clinical applications of angiogenesis. Nature 473(7347):298-307.

    Cree IA. (2011) Cancer biology. Methods Mol Biol 731:1-11.

    Jiang WG, Ablin RJ. (2011) Cancer metastasis, challenges, progress and the opportunities. Front Biosci 3:391-4.

    Rasheed ZA, Kowalski J, Smith BD, Matsui W. (2011) Concise review: Emerging concepts in clinical targeting of cancer stem cells. Stem Cells 29(6):883-7.

    Roussos ET, Condeelis JS, Patsialou A. (2011) Chemotaxis in cancer. Nat Rev Cancer 11(8):573-87.

    Vachon PH. (2011) Integrin signaling, cell survival, and anoikis: distinctions, differences, and differentiation. J Signal Transduct 2011:738137.

  28. ikesolem says

    The U.S. academic system has a bias against discussing and investigating environmental causes of cancer (pollution due to industrial and agricultural activities, etc.). The same is true for the vast majority of privately-funded cancer research institutes.

    A classic example is breast cancer, where the study of genetically inherited breast cancer genes is common, but the study of the role of pollutants in initiating cancers is not. Likewise, viral transmission of cancer is well-financed, but anyone examining links to industrial contaminants in breast tissue is persona non gratis in medical institutions with close ties to large corporations like Exxon and GE.

    There are however some good popular science books on the subject, notably “Living Downstream” by Dr. Sandra Steingraber.

    Environmental contaminants are a primary issue in childhood cancers, but anyone who has seen the advertisements put out by childhood cancer research institutes on U.S. media will notice that there is no mention of the role of pollution, and the emphasis is not on prevention, but on cures. Likewise, you’ll still see major media outlets claiming that environmental pollution has a “hazy” link to breast cancer:

    LA Times Oct 1 2011

    In reality, there are clear mechanistic explanations involving interaction of certain industrial chemicals with DNA and proteins that cause the cell cycle to go out of whack, or that damage the immune system’s innate ability to deal with such rogue cells.

    Here’s a cheap text ($27) on the subject:
    Cancer and the Environment, Gene-Environment Interactions, National Academies Press

    One key point they make is that “cancer” is a grab-bag definition:

    Through many years of fundamental research, we have begun to have a better understanding of cancer. Research underlying the basic phenomenon has been hampered by the fact that “cancer” is not a singular disease, but rather a closely linked group of molecular disorders. These disorders vary in their etiology and mechanisms but have some common intersections.