Thursday, February 17, 2011

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

A book about cancer cells? I wasn't so sure I'd be interested in this particular non-fiction work. But Rebecca Skloot had me hooked in the first couple pages as she she so craftily described her early fascination with cell division. Suddenly I (a banker, writer, musician - definitely not a scientist), found myself intrigued with a woman named Henrietta Lacks, who had died in in 1951 of cervical cancer.  Her cancer cells are still living and dividing to this very day. Oh and by the way, she didn't know her cell tissue was going to be used for research. Neither did her family (for many years). And another thing - she was black.

Never mind the fact this had been the first time in history that cells had been able to grow outside of the body. HeLa cells (named after Henrietta Lacks) opened a whole big world for scientific research, paving the way for important discoveries like the polio vaccine. Ms. Skloot not only defines HeLa for us in a scientific sense - she writes the story of Henrietta Lacks. She is a person, with a family who ironically has a myriad of health problems and can barely afford health insurance.  But at least a few companies got rich from it.

This novel is definitely discussion-worthy. While racism is an obvious theme, I believe the most controversial issue is "informed consent" in the medical field. This has been taking place on all races and all genders for quite some time - before HIPPA. Have you ever had a procedure and wondered what happened to the "waste" (for lack of a better word)? Honestly, I have not - until I read this book. I don't care what they do with it. I don't even care if they use it for research - more power to them. Most would agree (including the Lacks family) that research for the progress of science is good. But I'd sure like to know if I had contributed to mankind in some way. And of course, I'd sure be curious if there's something about my "waste" that could make a research outfit billions of dollars.

Anyway, this book is much more than a scholarly translation about cancer cells - it's a story about Henrietta Lacks and how she changed the world. And it's a story about a person's right to know how he or she can change the world.  It's a great read - I hope you read the story.

1 comment:

Rubi J said...

I loved this book, also. What moved me the most was how the Lacks family suffered. They only heard rumors and misinformation. It tore me apart to read of the daughter's years of trying to educate herself so she might understand. They were not treated with the dignity, as humans, deserved.