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Book Club: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Chapters 7-9

young adult cancer book club

Welcome to the comments and discussion of the Young Adult Cancer Book Club!  We are reading The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot! Catch up on Chapters 1-3 and Chapters 4-6.

Let’s get started!

Chapter 7.  The Death and Life of Cell Culture.  1951.

I grew up in a family of healthcare professionals and scientists.  This chapter was FASCINATING to me!  A few days ago, I called up my dad, a PhD in microbiology, and told him I was reading this book.  I asked him if the name, Henrietta Lacks, rang any bells.  He said that it did but that he couldn’t place the name.  “What about HeLa?” I said.  That name he recognized.  The gravity of this book, published in 2010, being one of the first complete pieces of information out there about Henrietta is astounding to me!

Chapter 7 takes us into the nitty gritty of cell culture.  We see Gey sending Henrietta’s cells around the country and around the world to scientists, researchers, and physicians.  We are given mental images of test tubes in the breast pockets of pilots as they travel great distances.  Of great note, we learn about the birth of cell culture and the dark character who helped lead cell culture into the land of “racism, creepy science fiction, Nazis, and snake oil.”  I think many of us can see parallels between cell culture’s publicity issues and those of more current medical and scientific discoveries.  The personalities behind those discoveries seem to hold great power over public opinion of the science itself.

– Mallory C

Chapter 8.  “A Miserable Specimen.”  1951.

In Chapter 8, Henrietta faces something that I think most cancer patients are afraid of. She tells her doctors that she thinks that her cancer is spreading, but they tell her she’s fine. They later find out that she was right all along, but it’s too late to do anything about it. I think this is a prime example of why patients today are told to advocate for themselves. We trust doctors to know what they’re doing, but we also need to trust that we know our bodies best. What really struck me while reading this chapter is that it didn’t seem like the doctors understood that the same HeLa cells that were multiplying so quickly in a lab were also multiplying inside their patient. It actually made me kind of angry that they couldn’t seem to figure that out.

– Jessica B

Chapter 9.  Turner Station.  1999.

Reading the start of the chapter, I was feeling very anxious for Rebecca. She had gone to this place with minimal details and guaranteed plans and was having to wait around for a response. Also, given the secrecy and controversy surrounding Henrietta Lacks’ story, I was feeling a little worried for her as well, as there was always a possibility she was lured there with ulterior motives to have her stop following this story. It was encouraging and inspiring to see her not worry as much about these possibilities and instead start taking the situation into her own hands. She headed to Turner Station, after the strange discoveries of the town being somewhat hidden on maps. The atmosphere and surroundings she described as she made the trek to Turner Station and drove through the town gave me a very gloomy, sad feeling. I was wondering if the poverty and deterioration of the area was related to Henrietta’s story somehow, which we later learn was somewhat the case with the Mr. Cofield mentions by Courtney Speed, known as Mama. I was happily surprised the people of the town are a stark contrast to the bleakness of the surroundings. Rebecca describes happiness, playing children, smiles, people talking to each other on the street, and greeting those they knew. I was incredibly encouraged by the sense of true community in Turner Station. It is evident everyone has each other’s back. I was glad for Rebecca to finally connect with Mama and be trusted enough to be given resources to further her research. I am really intrigued to find out more about the past experiences Turner Station had related to Henrietta Lacks, particularly everything surrounding Cofield. I am also looking forward to following Rebecca’s journey to Clover, the next place on her search to uncover the truth. We should be so thankful for her persistence, as we now have this incredible book and story for the world to share.

– anonymous

Thanks for joining us for Chapters 7-9 of  The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot!  Join in next Monday for Chapters 10-12.

If you’re just joining us, here are some logistics:

We will talk about several chapters each Monday until the book is done (probably about three chapters since the book has so many).  Then, we’ll use one more Monday to talk about general feelings from the book and anything else you’d like to discuss.  Join in, in the comments every week!  At the end, we’ll have a book club discussion via video chat!  Also, there will probably be spoilers.  Read along with us!

How are you enjoying our young adult cancer book club?