The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot (381 pages)
I don’t typically read non-fiction books, but this one was a pleasant surprise. As a newly-minted senior, my interest is piqued by any reference to immortality. Alas, there were no secrets revealed on how to live forever, per se, but there is a way for my cells to do so. That’s what happened to Henrietta Lacks and that’s how her children think of her long after her death 78 years ago. It began in Virginia in 1951 when a tissue sample from a cervical tumour was removed from a poor, black woman without her knowledge or consent. The cancer cells were cultured and made to multiply in a lab, resulting in a revolutionary breakthrough in medical technology. Thus Lacks’s cells became immortal and are still proliferating to this day, raising issues of race, ethics, and the ownership of an individual’s very own genetic material.
Because the author is a science writer, I was expecting a dry, boring tome full of facts and figures. But this author very deftly explained the intricacies of the biology in the telling of a fascinating—albeit alarming—story. I think she may have committed the cardinal sin for a journalist, becoming emotionally invested in the Lacks family and their plight at a profoundly personal level. For me, that’s what made the book worthy of my time, and I did not have to force myself to keep reading. The author grabbed me by the heart and made me care about the characters. I felt their outrage upon learning that Lacks was never informed about the miracle of her cells. Even worse, when the family did discover her unique contribution to medical science, they learned that they have no legal claim on the cell line or any of the billions of dollars generated by the biotech industry courtesy of their mother’s cancer.
Besides feeling violated on their behalf, I was stunned to know that although I’m not a poor, black tobacco farmer in a racist culture, what happened to Henrietta could easily happen to me or you or anyone who ever has a biopsy. If not for this book, I would be as uninformed and vulnerable as Henrietta was, and while knowing this does not uplift me, I do feel it’s always better to be aware (beware). For that, I am grateful to the author.
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Laura Vincent recently settled into retirement, doing a bit of writing, a lot of service and smelling the roses along the way. A plan is afoot to explore Europe on a Eurail Pass – one last great hurrah so to speak.
Favourite book: The Chrysalids by John Wyndham
Favourite brunch spot: Rocco Restaurant & Bar