The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
By Rebecca Skloot
1950s Baltimore, Maryland: Henrietta Lacks, an African American woman who grew up a tobacco farmer in Virgina, just gave birth to her fifth child. Shortly after, she was diagnosed with cervical cancer, and just weeks later, after undergoing radiation treatment, she died. Henrietta didn’t just have cervical cancer – her body had been engulfed by the disease.
Tumors the size of baseballs had nearly replaced her kidneys, bladder, ovaries, and uterus. And her other organs were so covered in small white tumors it looked as if someone has filled her with pearls… (p. 90)
Throughout her treatment and after her death, samples of Henrietta’s cancer cells were taken by Johns Hopkins Hospital and sent to a lab research. Her cells, unlike any other ever discovered, did not die. Instead, they multiplied constantly. Henrietta’s cells, HeLa, become one of the most important advances in medicine – the first immortal cell. Since they’re unable to die, they’re used by scientists across the world to better understand cells themselves, to learn about the impact of diseases on our bodies, and to test new immunizations and antibiotics.
Over the fifty years following Henrietta’s death, Henrietta’s family gradually learned that their wife’s/mother’s cells still lived. Their fight for information, years after Henrietta died, and their struggle to understand what has happened to Henrietta is difficult to describe. It’s scary to imagine living in such ignorance. It’s scary not being able to understand scientists’ and doctors’ explanations and the sci-fi like headlines in newspapers and magazines. The Lacks family, particularly daughter Deborah, took over a year to trust the author of this book, Rebecca Skloot. Then together, the Lackses and Skloot embarked on a journey to learn about Henrietta’s life and her life after death.
Review: The story flips between past and present, which actually make the book very easy to read. When I heard about it, I was concerned that it would be far too scientific, and frankly a bit boring. I was completely wrong. I was completely sucked into Henrietta’s story and didn’t want to put the book down.
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks combines the stories of Henrietta’s life, her daughter’s journey to learn about her, and the progress medicine has made as a result of her cells. The book is much more about the woman behind HeLa, her family, and history – African America history and medical history – than about the nuances of science. It is simply astonishing to think of the advances made over the past 50 years…. the differences in race relations, the increase in education among the general population (and thus, the way we perceive and treat those in the medical field), the advances in medicine (from diagnosis to treatments).
While the book was just a glimpse into these advances, it made a serious impression on me. It’s made me want to go back to the library for another book that will tie in with one of the themes in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks rather than work on my large to-read-before-I-move stack on my bookshelf.
Recommendation: If you love history, memoirs, or science, this is a must read. If you don’t, I’d still recommend it. So basically, no matter who you are, read this book.