Saturday, April 17, 2010

Review: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

by Rebecca Skloot (February 2010)
Non-fiction / Biography / Science

My Synopsis

Henrietta Lacks, a black woman in the 1950s was diagnosed with cervical cancer.  Without her knowledge, during her treatment with radiation, doctors at Johns Hopkins removed cancerous cells from her tumors and kept them for research.  Her cells were unusual because they could be cultured and quickly reproduced, which was invaluable to cancer research, polio, cloning, in vitro fertilization, the eventual discovery of extra chromosome 21 of Down syndrome patients, as well as the effects of steroids, hormones, and vitamins.  Doctors began selling the cells to researchers around the world, turning it into a multibillion-dollar business. Twenty-five years later, the family found out by mere coincidence that the well known HeLa cells, as they are called, were used in such a way, without consent or compensation, and are still in use today.

My Thoughts

Who would have thought that a book about the removal of a woman's cancer cells would be so interesting.  Oh but it was!  I loved this book.  Rebecca Skloot is talented.  At first I thought who cares if someone took cells from someone's body and used it to help millions of people around the world?  That would be a good thing, right?  But that's when it got interesting, because Skloot showed the ethical and racial issues that were involved and it just sucked me right in.

It was the 1950s, and because of where science and medicine was at that point, and because Henrietta was black, she received substandard care for her cancer.  But she placed her trust in the doctors because she had no choice; she had a husband and five children at home to care for.  One of those children, Elsie, was placed in the Home for the Negro Insane.  (Skloot tells of Elsie's deplorable story as well.)  Despite treatment, Henrietta died at age 31 from uremia, a complication from the cancer that took over her body.

The author first heard Henrietta's story as a 16-year-old high school student and then again 11 years later after reading a scientific paper titled "The HeLa Cancer Control Symposium."   She called the author of that paper and asked if he would put her in touch with the family.  At first they didn't want to speak about their mother or her cells, but she persisted.  After a year of unreturned messages, Skloot eventually gained the trust of Henrietta's daughter Deborah, who because of her own curiosity, agreed to provide information for the book.

Skloot did a beautiful job of moving between the scientific and human parts of the story.  I came to know each family member and how they felt about their mother and her cells, and what they were going through in their own lives.  Despite the huge financial success of their mother's cell business, each member of the Lacks family was uninsured and struggled through health and financial issues.

Although the HIPAA law has since been created to protect privacy, and guidelines (which aren't laws) are now in place regarding informed consent, the question of tissue and cell ownership remains. Any time you have an appendectomy, tonsillectomy, routine blood test or mole removed, doctors, hospitals and labs keep it. And store it.  Forever.  Kind of weird, huh?

Rebecca Skloot

Henrietta Lacks

Do I Recommend?




My Rating


Other reviews

Fizzy Thoughts
Linus's Blanket
J. Kaye's Book Blog
Sophisticated Dorkiness

What about you? Have you read this or do you plan to?


Natalie W said...

Very interesting! I'll have to check this book out. Great review, thanks!

Lynne said...

Natalie: You're welcome! If you read one non-fiction book this year, this should be it. Well, that or Jantsen's Gift, which I loved too.

Diane said...

I'm 3/4 through with this book and it is just FASCINATING! Thanks for the great review Lynne.

Lynne said...

Diane: Isn't it though? I don't know if everyone will give it a 5 star rating like I did - because I like science and medicine more than most - but I still think anyone who reads it will find it to be so interesting.

Staci said...

I've read so many great reviews of this one that I feel like I'd be a big time loser if I didn't read it!!! And then I noticed that Diane is loving it two have sold me on this one!!!!

Lynne said...

Staci: Put it on your list, girl! Seriously.

fredamans said...

I plan to read it now, thanks for the recommendation!!

Great review!!

Lynne said...

fredamans: You won't be disappointed. I hope a lot of people read it. I haven't seen a bad review yet.

Aths said...

I wasn't sure either if I would be interested! But now I am! I totally am!

Lynne said...

Aths: I didn't think I would be either. The cover, the title, the subject...nothing attracted me to it. But I had read a few other reviews and it happened to be available at the library so I grabbed it. Definitely not a "fluffy"-type book, obviously, but an interesting, well told story for sure.

Kim (Sophisticated Dorkiness) said...

I'm glad you liked this book -- I did too, for the most part. I think your description of it is great (much more succinct than I was able to be). I think the most interesting parts for me was learning how our ideas about medical ethics have changed -- for the better -- when it comes to privacy and protecting patients' rights.


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