Writing About Cancer

Cancer, by Ryan North, in Lightspeed, July 2013

“Cancer” is from the anthology This is How You Die, edited by Ryan North, Matthew Bennardo and David Malki !.

When Helen is born in 1990, a prediction machine reveals her cause of death: cancer. But the infallible prediction machines have more in store for Helen as she grows older.

Spoilers ahead! I’ll be writing about my reaction as I read through the story. Go ahead and read it now before you continue with my blog post. I’ll wait. 

Here’s one last row of filler text before the spoilers start. Ready? Here we go!

When North revealed that her cancer had become the first human immortal cell line, I thought, “Hey! That’s not right! The HeLa cell line was decades old by then!” I’d forgotten Helen’s surname, Lawrence, from the first line of the story.

Then, North revealed that Helen’s cells were HeLa. In real life, Henrietta Lacks and her family never consented to let her cancer cells be used in scientific research. For a long time, HeLa was thought to have come from a woman named Helen Lane. I was annoyed to see Henrietta Lacks being forgotten again, especially since this fictional HeLa sprang from patient awareness and consent.

Oh, but then I read the author’s note. In that postscript, North acknowledges the real HeLa’s unpleasant history with grace and humor. He says that he used a different name in this story out of respect for Henrietta Lacks, and that he thought publishing the story without the author’s note would be wrong. My frustration melted into admiration.

If you’d like to read more about the real story of Henrietta Lacks, I recommend the book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot. (This link is to the author’s website.) The book weaves Ms. Lacks’ own story with the science of the cell line, the ethical issues HeLa raised, and the story of the Lacks family after Henrietta’s death. I especially enjoyed the parts that detail Ms. Skloot’s journey to meet the Lacks family and research HeLa. (Full disclosure: I took a class from Ms. Skloot at NYU, before the book was published.)

Note: the word “human” was added to the first substantive paragraph, after the post went live. I also removed one sentence. 

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