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NurSearch Book Club – The Secret Life of Henrietta Lacks

The story of Henrietta Lacks was lost for more than half of a century. Perhaps, her story would still be a mystery if not for a journalist named Rebecca Skloot. The Secret Life of Henrietta Lacks describes the journey of investigative author Rebecca Skloot as she searches for the truth surrounding the Henrietta Lacks [HeLa] cells, and discovers the impact the cells they have had on the Lacks family. Warning, this book review may contain spoilers.

The story begins with Henrietta’s realization that she needs to seek medical care. At the time, segregation was in full effect. Henrietta had to enter John Hopkins through the “blacks only” entrance. John Hopkins was considered progressive for serving the African American community, but the services came with a price -your medical record could be used for research without your consent. Henrietta Lacks was diagnosed with an aggressive form of cervical cancer. Aggressive is an understatement. Her malignant cells were capable of multiplying in inhospitable environments. For this reason, they became the first cell line mass produced in a lab.

Rebecca provides a testament to the historical history of cervical cancer, cell culturing, and medical ethics. The book describes the unethical research practices of the time. One account describes the rationalization of researcher Chester Southam who injected cancerous cells into patients without consent.

Southam wrote

“He didn’t tell patients the cells were cancerous because he didn’t want to cause any unnecessary fear. The dreaded word ‘cancer’ in connection with any clinical procedure on an ill person is potentially deleterious to that patient’s well-being, because it may suggest to him that his prognosis is poor… to withhold such emotionally disturbing but medically nonpertinent details… is in the best tradition responsible clinical practice.”

Rebecca covers the debate on whether or not biological innovation can be patented. Billions of dollars have been made off of the HeLa cells. Later on, Rebecca meets Deborah, Henrietta’s daughter, who seeks closure regarding her mother’s death but cannot afford her own medical care.

Without a doubt, the Secret Life of Henrietta Lacks is a wonderful biographical novel combining both scientific and historical elements. Our only complaint, we wish that the story would of have gone into greater detail as to why the HeLa cells were so relentless.

On April 22, 2017, HBO released the biopic “The Secret life of Henrietta Lacks.”

 

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