Just some thoughts and ideas going around in my head while trying to figure out where I am and where everyone else is going.

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Henrietta Lacks

My father’s father died in his 60’s from cancer. My father died in his 60’s from cancer. Neither one of them smoked, I do. I wonder, what the chances are of me reaching to my 70’s? Probably not that great; but then I long ago figured that I wasn’t going to live forever. I mean who does? No one I know of for certain unless of course you think about Henrietta Lacks.

Henrietta Lacks
Henrietta Lacks, an African American, was born in 1920 as Loretta Pleasant in Roanoke Virginia. As a child she would grow up under her grandfather’s roof and marry her first cousin and then move to Maryland in her 20's

At the end of 1950 after the birth of her fifth child, she discovered unusual lumps in her groin accompanied by profuse and abnormal bleeding.  She was referred to Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore where they found that she had cervical cancer. During treatment, part of Mrs. Lacks’ cervix that contained both good and cancerous cells was removed without her knowledge and sent to Dr. George Otto Gey.  However, by the end of 1951 no medical treatments had worked for Henrietta and she died only to be buried in an unmarked grave in the family cemetery in Lackstown.

Dr. Gey soon found that unlike other human cells which usually subdivide and die after few days, Mrs. Lacks’ cells could not only survive indefinitely, but they would grow. Gey was able to isolate a specific cell from the tumor which he called HeLa, after Henrietta Lacks. This cell line was then mass produced and was sent to doctors around the world for successful research in areas such as cancer, polio, AIDS, radiation poisoning, gene mapping and many other medical projects too numerous to mention.

Of course many people have made a name for themselves using the HeLa cell and no doubt many people have been saved because of it. But many people have made millions for themselves producing or using the cell while members of Henrietta’s family remained poor and in the dark about their mother’s or relative’s contribution to medical science. An error perhaps, or just benign neglect on the part of those who thought little about the source of where their material came from and more about fame and or fortune that would head their way? I don’t know.

I didn’t really know what was right or wrong when I saw "Immortal" an episode of Law & Order based on this a few years ago when I thought something like this couldn’t possibly happen in real life. I know even less now what to think now that I know that it was true. All I do know that is if her surviving children can take some solace in knowing that their loss has provided so much relief and comfort in the lives of others, including perhaps my own when I reach my 60’s, then it may have been worth it all.

This has been my meager little attempt to recognize Henrietta Lacks in this year’s Black History Month.


  1. Interesting post. I heard about this remarkable story years ago on PBS. I thought it was shameful that her survivors never received a dime from the use of her cells. Very bad.

    As to your health, let me tell you about my experiences: I've had cancer three times. I'm a person who grew up on the Mediterranean diet [parents born in Italy], was a runner for 25 years, never was overweight, was moderate drinker--red wine. I did smoke, but gave it up. Cancer isn't a death sentence.

    I was diagnosed twice in the earliest stage of the disease, hence no need for chemo or radiation. Surgery took care of both times. The 3rd cancer was a non-malignant rare tumor that had to be treated with radiation. Go figure.

    I'm healthy, active, and not going to give in to anything, let alone that bastard cancer.

    Friend, stop the smoking if you can. You will love what your life gains by it. And keep getting check-ups often. You're too important not to do all you can to continue to be part of people's lives.

    Best wishes.

    1. Thanks for dropping by and thanks for the well wishes. I would love to take your advice but that monkey on my back and I have become good friends (or cell mates) over the years and to leave him right now is something I'm not sure I'm mentally equipped to handle.

  2. Mrs. Lacks, her memory & her legacy are more than worthy of being honored. In terms of modern science, she was /is Superwoman. Who even knows the number of lives her cells have helped to save or at least prolong! There should be a statue dedicated to her memory outside of every cancer institute in this country, & children & grandchildren should all be made multi-millionaires, though that's not likely to happen. Sadly.

    On the personal tip: I really wish you could & would dedicate yourself to seriously quit smoking once & for all, my brother. Yes, I know how difficult it is, trust. However, I also know that it's NOT impossible. It WILL truly be worth it in so many ways. So maybe instead of embracing what might be your probable destiny, perhaps you can actually DO something, healthwise, to counteract it.


    Make it happen, Cap'n!


    1. I'm torn, I don't believe that people should sell blood, or kidneys,or other body parts. It would lead to rich people harvesting organs from those of us in lesser positions and those of us in lesser positions unable to afford the medical help that we need. That's probably my position on the HeLa Cell as well accept for the fact that others have taken advantage and made millions off of it while her children have remained so poor that the can't even afford adequate health insurance. There's something wrong there or in my reasoning and I'm not sure which.

  3. Thanks for sharing this with your readers it is a story that needs to be shared. I received the book Henrietta Lacks, and there were many informal sessions on campus last year and the year prior in reference to Henrietta Lacks. Much as been discovered and applied due to the illness of: Henriette Lacks, lives have been sparred as a result.

    I understand how difficult it is to relinquish the Cig I's, I too believe that if I turn them loose I'll only pick up some other habit or vice.

    1. Chet I don't want to seem arrogant or anything but seem to have been the last person to have ever heard of this woman and I am surprised. Oh well, live and learn.

      What I'm not surprised by however is that you too have an addictive trait as well. Although, if I had to think about it and put money on it, cigarettes wouldn't have been my first choice.


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