Why you shouldn’t always assume

Just recently, I finished reading  “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.”

That’s her picture on the top of this post. She was a black woman who worked as a sharecropper who died at the extremely young age of 32 in 1951 of cervical cancer. Granted, cervical cancer was more common in those days as they didn’t know what caused it and the Pap smear, the test that detects changes in the cervix and is used as a preventive measure for the disease, was just being developed at that time. Her life span was probably cut short due to the fact that she had limited access to health care, an indignity that still goes on today. Anyhoo, what was most remarkable about her was that a doctor excised some of her cancer cells prior to her treatment and they were extremely unusual in that they continuously multiplied, unlike most cells. They were so extraordinary, they were studied by scientists and doctors who used the information gathered from those cells to develop the polio vaccine, numerous cancer drugs and various other drugs and treatments. In fact, during the 1980’s, some scientists studied her cells in order to find out what caused her cervical cancer, which they determined was the Human Papilloma virus-or HPV. The cells were excised without her knowledge and her family knew nothing about her cells contribution to science and medical advances until over 20 years after her death. Her cells are still around over 60 years later and researchers are still  studying them in order to develop new drugs and treatments as we speak.

I had never heard of the woman before I read the book and I’m sure most of you haven’t either. And frankly, I wouldn’t be surprised if the fact that cells from a black woman were studied in the development of the polio vaccine and various other treatments and drugs disturbs some of you. In fact, it was at least 10 years before some scientists in the field were even aware that the cells that they were studying and using for medical advances were from a black woman. I’m sure that there are a number of scientists today that still aren’t aware that some of the cells they’re studying are from a black woman. This isn’t something that many schools would be willing to teach. Why? Because we are conditioned from the cradle to believe that anything that white people do and achieve are normative and are the acceptable standard. Blacks, in political and social terms, are usually considered the bottom rung of the racial and ethnic ladder and therefore, we are ignored or denigrated. We are “other.” We are “abnormal.”

As far as the book itself, even though the subject matter is scientific in nature, the author does a good job of balancing dry clinical material with the human side of the story-namely the systemic racism within the medical establishment and the exploitation of  blacks in general. There is also material that details the family’s struggle to come to terms with what happened to Henrietta.  Honestly, I was hesitant to read the book at first, because, since the author is white, I wasn’t sure that she would be able to convincingly convey the systemic racism that the family dealt with and I feared that the book would come off as exploitative in nature. A number of black readers may still have that impression after reading it, but for me, it’s tempered by the fact that the author didn’t just Google some information, interview some of the scientists involved, then interview the family and go on about her merry way, without any emotional connection to the material. She became close with Henrietta’s daughter, Deborah and was willing and able to aid Deborah’s quest in finding out detailed information about her mother. Also, sales from the book are planned to go into a scholorship fund for Henrietta’s descendants, so the family wasn’t just a means to further the author’s career.   

The book brings up some other issues that I won’t get into here, since they are outside the scope of what I most wanted to discuss. I probably owe my life to Henrietta, because without her, it’s possible that I may not have been alive today to write this post. Although there are still some things that are unknown about HPV, the research that led to the discovery that some strains of it are linked to cervical cancer is a major step toward stemming the disease. That, along with the Pap test and the medical establishment’s insistance that women are screened regularly are the reasons why cervical cancer has gone from being the leading cause of death in women to only the 12th most common cancer. I wouldn’t be surprised if the HPV vaccine was developed from some information gathered from her cells.  

There’s still a way to go toward stemming the virus itself, but for my sake, I’m grateful that we’ve come this far. When it comes to matters of life and death, race shouldn’t matter.


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