Henrietta Lacks: The Pain and Posterity of a Life-saving Legacy

Henrietta Lacks is a woman whose name may be unknown to many, but whose cells are known to all. The first immortal cells are from Lacks. These are the cells that have been used by scientists to understand how the world around us impacts us at a cellular level, how things like chemicals and radiation are interpreted by our immune system. But, what even are immortal cells?

Immortal cells are cells that can replicate and reproduce outside of their host environment. Scientists had been trying to create an environment where eternal human cells could thrive, but they were unsuccessful. That is, until they encountered the cells of Henrietta .

Ms. Lacks died of cervical cancer in 1951, yet her cancer cells – the ones that stole her from her family, from her life, and which were quite literally stolen from her – are still alive, thriving, and advancing medicine over seventy decades later. 

In 1951, when Henrietta was thirty-one years old she arrived at Johns Hopkins Medical Center in Baltimore, Maryland with vaginal bleeding. She had been referred to a gynecologist after feeling a “knot” inside her stomach while she was pregnant with her fifth child. Johns Hopkins was one of the only hospitals at the time to care for Black patients. And there, a malignant tumor was found in her cervix – a large one. This tumor had been missed by doctors while she was giving birth and even after a follow-up exam six weeks after her son’s birth.

There were opportunities to spot the cancer before it had become so far advanced that it killed her. The lack of early diagnosis, despite the opportunity, is representative of the way Black women are treated by the US medical system, in 1951 and still to this day. Black women are not believed, not heard, not prescribed pain medication at the same rate as their white counterparts, and are at a much higher risk of things like maternal death. For example, Black women have a 40% higher death rate for breast cancer, despite having a 4% lower rate of breast cancer occurrence than White women (American Cancer Society). In fact, “Black people are more likely to die from most cancers and to live the shortest amount of time after a cancer diagnosis than any other racial/ethnic group” (More Black Women Die from Breast Cancer Than Any Other Cancer). 

After the tumor discovery, she suffered through all that the then-modern medicine could provide for her, including an extremely horrific treatment which involved sewing tubes of radium into her cervix which caused burns and pain. Unfortunately, none of these treatments worked and she passed away on October 4, 1951. Upon her passing she left behind a family who loved her and five children who deserved to know that scientists around the world were buying and selling her cancer cells as a commodity. 

The cancer cells which sprung from Lacks’ cervix are known to the greater science community as HeLa cells. These cells, even after being taken from their original environment, continued to divide, and divide, and divide. Their constant growth and multiplication allowed scientists to observe, test, and continue to grow them. Henrietta Lacks’ cells were the first of their kind. They survived. All the other cells that had been collected thus far had died after removal. But, not Lacks’ cancer cells – they were eternal, immortal. The first line of immortal cells to be collected. 

But, they were not willingly given. They were taken, without her consent. The surgeon who performed a biopsy saved some of her tissue for scientific research, without her being informed or given the opportunity to choose, to give her consent. Her tissue was whisked away in vials filled with her cancer cells, which became labeled as “HeLa.” 

Even with their painful origin, the HeLa cells have been lifesaving and have been used to test the effects and efficacy of the very treatments which could have saved her, such as chemotherapy. Chemotherapy is not all Ms. Lacks’ cells have contributed to, as they’ve been used to study the effects of vaccines, make-up, the effects of radiation on human cells. They  have also allowed scientists to expand their knowledge of cancer, cellular reproduction, and even the Polio vaccine was created thanks to HeLa. According to the National Institute of Health, HeLa cells have been cited in over 110,000 scientific publications from 1953 to 2018. (https://osp.od.nih.gov/hela-cells/

While the Johns Hopkins website states that her surgeon had been collecting cells from all of his cervical cancer patients, “regardless of their race or socioeconomic status,” the truth remains that Henrietta Lacks was a Black woman in 1950s Maryland being operated on by a white doctor, and she was not informed about the choices being made to her body, to her tissue, to her cells. Why is it that doctors felt entitled to her cells? Why has her family never seen a cent of money while rich – often white – pharmacists, scientists, business men, were successful and financially-secure, as Henrietta laid in an unmarked grave in her family’s cemetery in Halifax County, VA. We know the answer to these questions: systematic racism. It has invaded every facet of our world, preventing individuals from getting the care, the life, the acknowledgement that they deserve. The truth is atrocious. Yet, her cells have saved countless lives. Henrietta Lacks deserves for the world to know her name, not to be quickly jotted down on lab notes as “HeLa cells,” but to be talked about with the reverence and acknowledgement of knowing what she had to endure, and what she was forced to give up for us to have her cells. She did not get to live a long life with her family, nor watch her five children grow up. We cannot change the situation of her death, the time in which she grew up, nor the way her cells were taken from her. We can, however, honor the woman whose cancer ended up killing her and saving us.

Image credit: Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery and National Museum of African American History & Culture; gift from Kadir Nelson and the JKBN Group, LLC

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