Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Book Review: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks [2010]

I am not very comfortable with stories about mothers dying of cancer. It hits way too close to home, and it's something I'd prefer not to think about at all. Ever. However, since I know that approach is not only unrealistic, but unhealthy for me as well, once in a while I challenge myself with something that I know will probably be painful. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot, met that criterion, as well as being well reviewed and available on CD: Win-win-win! I have also been trying to read a bit more nonfiction lately, especially since I enjoyed The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher so thoroughly.

Immortal Life is the kind of "relaxed" nonfiction in which the author-narrator takes us on a voyage of discovery that infuses dry, scientific facts with the flavor of human interest. Journalist Skloot had been fascinated as a student by the mystery of the woman behind the HeLa cell line, which has been used to develop the polio vaccine and test cancer therapies, and for a host of other biomedical advances over the last sixty years. Scientists have spent entire careers working with HeLa, but virtually none of them (not to mention the general public) were aware that the relentlessly growing cells originated from an African-American woman named Henrietta Lacks.

In 1951, Lacks was diagnosed with cervical cancer, and a doctor at the Johns Hopkins clinic removed part of the tumor (without her knowledge or consent) before she was treated with radiation therapy. The sample of her cancerous cells grew "like nothing anyone had seen, doubling their numbers every twenty-four hours, stacking hundreds on top of hundreds, accumulating by the millions." Scientists had been struggling to develop self-perpetuating cell lines for years, and Henrietta's cells provided them with an endlessly growing crop on which to perform experiments (some of them vicious and illegal, such as when Henrietta's cancerous cells were injected into healthy patients without their consent). HeLa, as the cells became known, soon spread to laboratories around the world.

In the meantime, the Lacks family had lost Henrietta to a brutally painful death from uremia soon after radiation treatments failed to cure her cancer. Her autopsy revealed that 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 had filled her with pearls." Her children, most notably Deborah Lacks, around whom Skloot frames her story, grew up knowing almost nothing about their mother. It was decades before the Lacks family (struggling to survive in Baltimore) was made aware of the existence of HeLa, which by that point had become a profit-making enterprise and scientific standard. Deborah's brothers reacted with anger, but Deborah was fueled by a desire to discover everything she possibly could about her mother and her dead sister, Elsie, who had been institutionalized and died in the 1950s.

As Skloot comes to a careful truce with the Lacks family and helps Deborah on the slow and painful road to knowing her mother, she intersperses chapters on the scientific developments of cell culture and the discoveries it facilitated. Skloot strikes a careful balance between ethics and the importance of scientific research as she investigates the history of informed consent and presents the "science" part of the story in approachable prose. The combination of these informational chapters with the narrative of Henrietta and Deborah is amazingly effective. I would definitely recommend The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks to anyone interested in accessible nonfiction, the history of medicine, African-American history, or just someone looking for a good, moving story. I admit, I cried more than once while listening in the car.

Grade: A

Random Thoughts:

One of the most amazing things about this story is the fact that so many of the principals were still alive, despite the fact that Lacks died in 1951. For example, Skloot was able to interview the doctor who examined Henrietta and removed her cells. Lab assistants, researchers, family members, and others who were touched by Lacks (or HeLa) were still available for Skloot's research. The book was at least ten years in the making, and at times yielded some amazing and improbable discoveries, especially where Deborah's sister Elsie was concerned. It makes me wonder what on earth Skloot will write about next, since she became a primary character in Immortal Life.

Skloot is donating proceeds from the sale of the book to the Henrietta Lacks Foundation, which has just given out its first grants to some of Henrietta's descendants.

I listened to the book on audio CD, and the narrator was certainly able, but I would also recommend picking up the book to see the eight  pages of color photographs, which do a great deal to bring life to the people that Skloot describes.

I may be the only one who thought this, but if there had been another season of The Wire, they could have centered it around the interaction between Johns Hopkins and the citizens of Baltimore.

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