Read It

I have never done a review on a book before.  I also haven’t written about a book that I have read in nearly 18 years.  If you haven’t read The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, I would recommend that you do.  I am not really going to talk about the book here, but it moved me in so many ways.  My Mom is reading it now, and called me on Saturday to “yell” at me, since she hadn’t been able to do anything besides read this book since I lent it to her, apparently her housework was getting neglected.  I did the same thing, it is that good.

Henrietta Lack‘s cancer cells were the first cells that were able to be cultured and grown in a lab.  They have been used in science the world over, are a significant reason that we have vaccines for Polio, modern treatments for cancer and various other diseases.

This book is a work of non-fiction, I was a tad worried that it may be filled with too much medical jargon, but it wasn’t.  It was filled with information that was interesting, and personal to this woman’s family.

In many ways, it shadowed a couple of things within my own family.

Henrietta Lack’s had cervical cancer.  She was born in 1920, my maternal grandmother was probably born around the same time.  (My Nana was notorious for lying about her age, no one really knew how old she was.  This is a guess.  I know she graduated from high school in the later 1930’s, and was an “older” mom when my Mom was born in 1950.)  Henrietta’s cancer was discovered in 1951, my Nana’s was found in 1966 when my Mom was 16 years old.

The treatment at the time that my Nana’s cancer was discovered was the same type of treatment that Henrietta Lack’s received.  At that time they would sew a pouch of radiated material next to your cervix, let it sit there for a week or two, remove that pouch, and add a another some time later, then they would use x-ray therapy after the radiated pouches were removed to further kill off any cancer.

This treatment turned all the hair on my Nana’s body white.  All of it.  She had burns all over her body from the radiation treatment, specifically down the insides of her legs, my Mom remembers her legs being charred black, she could only wear shorts for a long time because of her legs, she was in tons of pain and was sick during the entire treatment.  It was a hellish ordeal.

Now, at the time, it did seem to take care of my Nana’s cancer.  She carried on with her life.  Continued work as a bookkeeper, took care of her children and husband.

When I was young, probably about 8 or 9 years old, she had a recurrence of cancer, this time in her stomach.  By this point they had chemotherapy, and had come a long way in the treatment of cancer.  The thing is, the stomach cancer was likely caused by radiation poisoning.  This in the end, eight years or so later when I was 16, it is what ultimately killed her.  Radiation poisoning and stomach cancer.

It’s amazing to me what has come from the research of the HeLa cells.  Reading this gave me a new understanding to my Nana’s death.  It made me understand a bit better why she was so nervous to be treated for cancer again once the stomach cancer came back.  I would have been nervous too.




2 Comments on “Read It”

  1. missohkay says:

    I recommend this book to people all the time – it was so good. Thanks for sharing your Nana’s story.

  2. Jen says:

    I shall add this to my list.

I like thoughtful comments!

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