So I had this whole idea for a regular monthly blog topic called Inspirational Individuals on the Ides (I^3). I totally thought the 15th was the “ides” of every month and apparently that’s not quite the case. You can find a neat little history lesson on how the ides of months are determined here. (And yes, I do know I sound like a dork. And no, I don’t care.)
I was being interviewed for the Manship School of Mass Communication’s (my alma mater) website a few days ago and one of the questions was “why did you decide to start the blog.” Part of it was to keep my friends & family in others state updated on what was happening regarding my cancer diagnosis. But I had already established a private blog that I could use for that purpose. I really just had this inner drive to document what was happening to me because I know as someone waiting to be (or newly) diagnosed, I was scoring the internet for any information of what other people in my situation had been through. For example, I wanted to make sure that any other army spouses out there trying to get TRICARE to pay for a wig could learn from my experience and avoid some of the pitfalls I encountered. For another, I really had no idea what to expect from radiation. No one told me I was going to have to be tattooed ahead of time, or that I’d have to wear a mask and stay absolutely stationary for long periods of time. I knew all of that because of the blogosphere and other people’s experiences, so I was prepared, but those issues easily could have thrown me through a loop. Knowing how much I benefitted from blogs in the days leading up to my diagnosis, made the decision to blog very natural.
I think another major influence is the fact that I have grown up and come of age in a time when so many inspiring individuals have bravely discussed their illnesses or disabilities very publicly in order to raise awareness and research funds, and to empower and educate others. I’ve already talked about quite of few of these individuals: Robin Roberts, Scott Hamilton, Lance Armstrong, Michael Douglas, Shannon Miller, etc. I’m sure I’ll spotlight quite a few of these characters and other well-known people in the future. But this month I want to take a few minutes to spotlight someone who did not grow up in a time when people were very vocal about their illnesses. When people couldn’t find information through a Google search. Survivorship issues didn’t really exist because most people didn’t survive. She was not wealthy or famous. In fact, her real name wasn’t even known for many years. She was instead referred to by the first two letters of her first and last name.
November’s Inspirational Individual on the Ides is Henrietta Lacks. I first heard about Henrietta Lacks at the September meeting of BAG (Books are Glorious) Ladies, my monthly book club. We were trying to decide what books to read in the upcoming months and someone suggested “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” by Rebecca Sloot for November. As she was explaining the book to me I was immediately hooked.
Henrietta Lacks was a 30 year old African American woman and mother of five who was diagnosed with cervical cancer in 1951. She received medical care at a free clinic at Johns Hopkins. While she was unconscious for a procedure, they took two samples of her cervix, from both the healthy and affected areas. A physician at Johns Hopkins, George Otto Gey, used samples from the people that were brought into the free clinic regularly for medical research. It was not legally necessary at that time to ask living patients for their consent for these procedures, and it is unknown whether Henrietta ever knew the samples were taken. What is known, is that Henrietta forever changed the medical community.
Although Henrietta died from her cancer a mere eight months after this procedure, many of her cervical cancer cells are still alive today in the form of HeLa, the first ever line of immortal human cells. Since then, her cells have helped cure polio, create new cancer treatments, determine the number of human chromosomes, and countless other medical advancements. They even went into space to test the effects of zero gravity on human cells before any human made the journey. Before HeLa, scientists had no way to safely test human tissue. Her contribution to medicine and science is truly invaluable. And yet she lived in a time when African Americans were segregated in hospitals. When she had only one hospital to go to period, because it was the only one that served African Americans in her area. When even blood donations were segregated by race. Her surviving family never received any financial compensation for HeLa from the medical community. They couldn’t even afford the medical advancements the HeLa cell’s generated.
Just recently, Rebecca Skloot author of “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” has set up The Henrietta Lacks Foundation to help Henrietta’s descendants and others who have made contributions to medical research without financial gain of their own.
Henrietta, I want to say “thank you!” Thank you so much for your contribution to science. I have personally benefitted from it tremendously. Your cells helped develop and improve effective chemotherapy and radiation therapy treatments which saved my life. They also helped develop invitro fertilization, which has created four embryos that might one day be my children. Thank you thank you thank you from the bottom of my heart. I can’t imagine how scary things were for you. I’m so sorry that you were not fortunate enough to live in 2012 and benefit from the resources and research that I do because of you and others like you. I truly owe you my life.
You have given so many people the happy ending you so rightfully deserved.