Written by young science writer Rebecca Skloot, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks tells the story of a young black woman, Henrietta Lacks, and her family. Mrs. Lacks developed a virulent cervical cancer when she was only in her late 20’s, and died at Johns Hopkins in 1951. She was only 31 years old.
What followed Mrs. Lacks’ death seems to be science fiction, but it is true: her cancer cells were preserved and continued to grow, creating a cell line available for experimentation for the development of vaccines, cancer drugs, and possibly a cure for cancer. This cell line is still alive today. But Mrs. Lacks’ family never consented to the use of her cells in this manner, and later they found themselves feeling used, betrayed, and marginalized.
Skloot has the ability to make science riveting, but the human story is what interests me the most in this book. As you read, you learn about the life of Henrietta, her children, her husband and extended family, and you find out what happened when Skloot was writing the book. The Lacks family did not want to cooperate in Skloot’s research, although she wanted to tell the world Henrietta’s story. They had been exploited by white people before and did not trust Skloot in the beginning. How Mrs. Lacks’ daughter, Deborah, came around to sharing, and how Skloot was able to do research make up a great part of this book.
I had a hard time reading this book at first because I am fighting my own gynecological problems. Thankfully, my problems are not life-threatening as Mrs. Lacks’ were. As Skloot described Lacks’ symptoms and her cancer in great detail, I had to set the book down several times (sometimes for over a week). However, as did the Lacks family, I found some emotional healing as the book went on. It’s stunning to think about how Mrs. Lacks’ suffering and the use of her cells has made so many life-saving drugs and vaccines possible. I wouldn’t be surprised if they have touched my life personally.