I am a lay person who wants a broad technical understanding of cancer including a survey of types, their etiologies, epidemiology, treatment modalities, prognoses, and current state of the art research. I have spent hours searching but to my surprise I cannot find a book or documentary or other resource that surveys these topics in spite of the ubiquitous impact of this family of disease. The best I have found is "The Emperor of All Maladies" which is really an historical account, and a few TED talks. Popular books on cancer tend to be aimed at sufferers and an endless litany of miracle cures involving vitamins and diets.

I must be overlooking something. How did you get up to speed on these diseases? Surely I don't need to go to med school?

  • 3
    This is a hard one to answer; we don't know your background knowledge on things like molecular and genetic biology, chemistry, pathology, histology, statistics, epidemiology... How much do you seek to understand? Most people in medicine had many layers of learning about it as part of classes through many years, not a single source on cancer from A to Z. This has a potential to be closed as "opinion-based" but I think it's still valid and not asking for opinion so much as options, so I would encourage us to try to keep it open in hopes someone has a resource.
    – DoctorWhom
    Jun 20, 2019 at 0:08
  • I'm a professor and therefore I'm (hopefully) a decent student; but in the interest of keeping my question more broadly useful, I'm asking on behalf of any reasonably well-educated and motivated lay person. Since posting my question I ran across a Coursera class on the Biology of Cancer that's free to audit (coursera.org/learn/cancer). It seems pretty good thus far.
    – Fixee
    Jun 20, 2019 at 0:17
  • @DoctorWhom Being opinion based wouldn't be its fatal flaw in my view, but being too broad might be. But I don't know whether there's a source out there like OP describes or not, so I won't close it. I'd be very surprised to see 5 close votes from the community or another mod, so I think it's safe.
    – Carey Gregory
    Jun 20, 2019 at 4:47
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    @Fixee If you don't get answers, keep in mind you can answer your own question. So if the coursera course seems worthwhile after you've got a feel for it, you might consider answering with that.
    – Carey Gregory
    Jun 20, 2019 at 4:48

2 Answers 2


I've spent a few hours going through the Johns Hopkins short course entitled "Introduction to the Biology of Cancer" and which covers almost exactly what I was looking for: major types of cancer (lung, stomach, colon, liver, breast and prostate, but curiously not skin cancer), known causes (spoiler: don't smoke), genetic bases, metastatic process, treatment options, epidemiology, prognoses.

The course uses terms without definition at times, so the student should have a basic understanding of biology (example terms used without definition: "histology" and "allele"). But that's about it: no chemistry, cellular biology, pathology, statistics, or other background is needed.

My one concern thus far: there seem to be a few misstatements I wouldn't expect from Johns Hopkins professors (and I'm a medical lay person so I could be wrong, but I think it's they who are wrong). Example misstatements:

  • A variation in nucleotides is called a "polymorphism" or a "single-nucleotide polymorphism" (while SNPs are overwhelmingly the most common polymorphisms, there are multiple-nucleotide polymorphisms as well)
  • No one else has an exact copy of your DNA (tell this to an identical twin)
  • A "mutation" is a detrimental genetic variation that increases the risk of developing a disease (there are benign mutations (most in fact) as well as beneficial mutations; in fact, beneficial mutations drive the process of evolution)

Am I being too pedantic? Perhaps. Overall, I am deeply grateful I have access to this resource, from experts, for free. The course is available to audit for free through Coursera (https://coursera.org/learn/cancer) or you can pay $49 USD if you want to take the exams and get course credit. (I am in no way affiliated with Coursera.)


You could try the 'For Dummies' range:


which, incidentally, cover a whole range of health issues:


  • Thanks, but these books appear to be the same types as I've found already: either "cancer nutrition" or "what to expect from your breast cancer" or "from your chemo/radiation." There does not seem to be a survey of cancer (for dummies).
    – Fixee
    Jun 20, 2019 at 23:52

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