The Panacea Project
By Catherine Devore Johnson
After Calla is diagnosed with cancer, her friend/social worker/mother figure, Rae, jumps into action. She brings Calla a bag of healthy groceries, including a large amount of kale, so that Calla can begin a cancer-friendly diet. Introduce your book club to The Panacea Project with this delicious and flavorful themed snack, roasted garlic kale hummus. Click here to view the recipe from The Garlic Diaries.
** Thank you to NetGalley and Greenleaf Book Group Press for the chance to review this book **
If your body had the ability to cure cancer, what would be your moral responsibility to society, and what would society’s moral responsibility be to you?
This is the core debate in Catherine Devore Johnson’s debut novel, The Panacea Project. Johnson delves into the world of medical ethics through the eyes of Calla Hammond, a 23-year-old woman who is diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor and spontaneously recovers. Calla has vitiligo, an autoimmune disease that causes her to lose melanin in patches of her skin. People often shun her for her appearance. Furthermore, she is a foster child– her mother died years ago, and she never knew the identity of her father. The only person who shows care and concern for Calla is Rae, the social worker assigned to her case until she aged out of the system. Rae has always felt like Calla is meant to change the world, and boy, was she ever right.
After having a seizure at the library in which she works, Calla is rushed to the hospital. Multiple scans show a large mass growing in her brain. Within a few days, Calla is scheduled for brain surgery to remove the tumor. When her surgeon opens her up, however, the tumor is gone. Calla awakens from her anesthesia to find the OR in turmoil. Her surgeon, Dr. Cho, assumes that this is a wrong-patient scenario, and he apologetically tries to explain how all of the brain scans from another patient might have ended up coded as Calla’s. Another doctor, however, catches wind of the situation and has an entirely different theory. Dr. Kraft is a cancer researcher who believes that Calla spontaneously recovered from her cancer. He believes that there might be a single cure for all cancers, and he thinks Calla might be the breakthrough he is looking for. By the end of the day, he gets Calla to agree to participate in a cancer research study.
Calla soon finds out that participating in the study is more than she bargained for. The constant blood draws and biopsies leave her feeling used and drained, even though she is getting compensated well for her participation. Dr. Kraft’s inhospitable nature does not help the situation. However, his team becomes a second family to Calla. Dr. Juhi Pemmaraju acts as Dr. Kraft’s assistant and is as warm and caring as she is brilliant. Reuben, the nurse practitioner, always brings a smile to Calla’s face. He becomes the friend that Calla has always struggled to find. Then there’s Ralph, the lab tech. Ralph makes Calla uncomfortable from the start, but Calla tolerates his presence if it means that the team might find the cure for cancer.
The team enjoys total anonymity at first. Dr. Kraft quickly finds that Calla’s blood can send lab animals with cancer into remission. Right before Dr. Kraft and Dr. Pemmaraju publish a study with their findings, the information is leaked to the media. Calla is suddenly thrust into worldwide stardom as people claw to get a glimpse of the woman who can cure cancer. Almost as quickly, Calla’s life is endangered. People want her to lay her hands on them, try to get snippets of her hair, and even try to kidnap her in order to save their loved ones. They accuse her of withholding her gift from the world, claiming they would give everything they could to save sick patients. Dr. Kraft reminds her that she does not have enough blood to give transfusions to all of the cancer patients in the world, and Calla is better off waiting for the team to find a treatment or develop a vaccine. Furthermore, granting transfusions to just one person would open up ethical discussions about who can receive them and why the hospital denies them to some, but not others. Calla eventually needs private 24-hour security. However, Calla’s safety eventually collides with the value of her blood, and the world will never be the same.
The Panacea Project is a debut novel, and the writing sometimes reflects the inexperience of the author. However, this is definitely a book that I will be mulling over for a long time. I wrestled with a lot of topics that I hadn’t considered before: What would happen if one person’s blood contained the cure for cancer? How long would it take for powerful individuals to step into the situation? Would the individual ever feel safe? How would their life change? And, as I stated earlier, what moral responsibility would the person have to society, and what responsibility would society have to her? Medical ethics is a fascinating field, and I don’t know how society would react to a situation like Calla’s. I think Johnson’s reenactment is totally plausible, though. One area in which I cannot comment, however, is how researched the novel is. I do not have a medical degree, so I cannot judge whether the actions by Dr. Kraft’s team are realistic or not. As a former public relations specialist, I can say that Valerie’s actions seemed spot-on.
Even though the writing is a bit inexperienced, the concepts behind The Panacea Project are intriguing and left me craving more. I was so caught up in the book that I struggled to put it down even though I was on vacation. It’s a good debut novel from Catherine Devore Johnson, and I look forward to reading her future works.
My Rating System Explained 5 Stars ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️: This was an amazing book, and I can't stop thinking about it. It impacted me emotionally or changed my perspective. My thoughts keep flickering back to it at random times throughout the day. I will absolutely recommend it to my friends or to one of my book clubs. 4 Stars ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️: This was a really good book. Parts of it stuck with me, and I might mention it in a conversation. There is a high likelihood that I will recommend it to my friends or to one of my book clubs. 3 Stars ⭐️⭐️⭐️: I liked this book. It allowed me to escape from reality for a while. While I might tell somebody about it if I think it will interest them, I will probably not suggest it to one of my book clubs. 2 Stars ⭐️⭐️: There's something about this book that I didn't like. I wasn't willing to go all the way down to a one-star rating, but I'm definitely not digging it. I may recognize that this book is not for me, but it might be for other people. I will not recommend it to my friends or one of my book clubs. 1 Star ⭐️: My rarest rating. I really didn't like this book. Something in the story line upset me, and I probably "hate-read" the majority of the book. Not only will I not recommend it, but I will actively tell people that I did not like it.