Book Review: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

Cannonball Read IV #26

My mom has been trying to get me to read this book forever. And then my friend Megan also mentioned that it was so good. In fact, she said it’s one of her favorite books ever. So finally, like two years after it was a hot new book, I bought the paperback of The Imortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot at Target and seriously couldn’t put this one down.

Henrietta Lacks was a young, African American woman diagnosed with a very aggressive form of cervical cancer in the 50s. Doctors took biopsies of both her normal and abnormal cervical cells and to their surprise, the abnormal cells never died. Given the right conditions (warmth and food), the cells thrived and reproduced like crazy. Scientists for the last few decades have been using these cells – called HeLa – to help with the treatment of cancer, the discovery of the polio vaccination, and countless other experiments on living cells.

My expectation before I read this book was that there would be more information on the actual science of HeLa cells, and there was a lot more of the story of Henrietta Lacks’ family – and honestly, I was pleased that the social side was covered more than I expected. The use of HeLa cells, even though they aren’t cells from anyone who is alive, has an affect on Lacks’ family today. Skloot does a good job of addressing the sensitive issues that surrounded – and continue to surround the Lacks family and the repercussions of the use of HeLa cells.

The science behind the HeLa cells is intriguing as well. Skloot carefully but understandably explains how cancer works and how HeLa cells manage to keep growing, decades later. I really appreciated that I was never confused by the technicalities of what was being explained. And even more importantly, I think Skloot did a fantastic job of weaving in the science with the medical ethics of what happened with Henrietta Lacks. I was so shocked reading some of what Skloot covers. It seems entirely outrageous to me that I have no control over my cells, whether they’re removed from my body with consent or without. One doctor even had the audacity to say, “If you don’t want to risk us using your cells, then fine. Just let your appendix burst” (That’s clearly the gist of what he said and not an exact quote but I think you get the point.)

I highly recommend this book to anyone who is interested in science, biology, medical ethics, or human interest stories. This one has all of those.

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