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Book Club: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Chapters 1-3

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

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!

Let me start by saying, I’m really glad the Lacuna Loft community chose this book.  It was a close call between this choice and another (that read will become the Round 6 book club choice!) and I’m excited to read both.  The young adult cancer book club is for you, and I’m looking forward to learning how you react to the chapters of this book.  Each week, you’ll hear from a variety of voices of young adult cancer survivors.  You’ll hear how they react to each chapter as we go along and you’ll be given the opportunity in the comment section below each post to voice your own opinion as well.  If you’d like to have your reactions/comments for a specific chapter published on the Young Adult Voices blog, let me know by emailing  I’ll be starting us off with Chapters 1-3 and next week other voices will start to fill the story in!

Chapter 1.  The Exam.  1951.

In addition to Chapter 1, I read all of the introduction material at the start of this book.  I appreciated how it introduced readers to the author and how it solidified the author’s viewpoint from that of the main characters.  Given the racism and cultural misappropriation rampant in the US, I was specifically relieved to hear the author very specifically state how she went about collecting her information, verifying it, and maintaining the authentic voice of the authentic persons involved.

Moving into Chapter 1, the first thing I noticed was the year marked at the top of the page.  “Thank goodness,” I thought!  The author explained in the introductory material that she would move around in time and I always worry about getting lost.  Having the timeline defined each chapter is a really great resource.  The first chapter launches us directly into Henrietta Lacks’s visit to the hospital where a physician takes a biopsy of her cervical tumor.  Flashing back a bit, Henrietta is having a conversation with a cousin of hers (Sadie) about the “knot” in her womb but doesn’t go to the doctor.  The author writes, “In those days, people didn’t talk about things like cancer, but Sadie always figured Henrietta kept it secret because she was afraid a doctor would take her womb and make her stop having children.”

Sitting at my desk chair, as a white woman in the year 2017, this fear seems wild to me, almost preposterous.  But that was then, and this is now.  Strong distrust of medical institutions, doctors, and the government ran rampant in the South (and still do in some places).  Letting that settle into my brain and into my heart took a few seconds.  I cannot imagine fearing that a physician would ‘take my womb,’ and I ache for Henrietta.

– Mallory C

Chapter 2.  Clover.  1920-1942.

This chapter provides great historical background and context to Henrietta’s story.  We see Henrietta’s birth, her move to live with her grandfather, her life spent with cousins on a tobacco farm, and more.  We move steadily through over 20 years of her early life and watch as she starts having children and marries.  Eventually, though tobacco is a desired crop, small tobacco farms are hurting and Henrietta’s family is just making ends meet.  She moves to Baltimore to start a new life with her husband working in a steel mill.

Henrietta’s early days, though full of hardship and hardwork, seem also filled with love, family, and community.  Learning details of her early life help cement her personality and spirit in my brain as I continue reading the book.

– Mallory C

Chapter 3.  Diagnosis and Treatment.  1951.

Chapter 3 sent us back to 1951 as Henrietta learns of her diagnosis and goes back to the hospital for treatment.  I very much appreciated the brief, medical description of in situ vs. invasive and to learn some of the fabulous histories behind the development of the Pap smear and early diagnosing strategies.  The misdiagnosing issues, as well as the quote, “Like many doctors of his era, TeLinde often used patients from the public wards for research, usually without their knowledge,” made me cringe.  So many important discoveries and crucial medical research done without consent!

– Mallory C

Thanks for joining us for Chapters 1-3 of  The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot!  Join in next Monday for Chapters 4-6.

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?

Image via Cornelia Schütz