Chapter 5 Summary

1951

Soon Henrietta Lacks returned home from the hospital and resumed her normal life. On the weekends, she took her family to her childhood home in Clover, where they all helped in the tobacco fields and enjoyed time with the family. Her family did not know that she was sick. They were, however, aware of another heartache in her life: recently she had decided it was too difficult to care for her mentally retarded daughter, Elsie. At her doctors’ recommendation, Henrietta had committed Elsie to a mental hospital.

Henrietta kept her cancer a secret through her first and second radium treatments. After that, doctors told her that the tumor was shrinking, but that they needed to perform X-ray therapy. This meant daily visits to the hospital for a month, a difficult proposition because Day worked nights and could not drive Henrietta home until late. Henrietta decided to spend the intervening time at her cousin Margaret’s house, which was not far from the hospital—but this meant admitting to Margaret that she was sick.

Henrietta revealed the truth to Margaret and another cousin, Sadie, at a carnival, at the top of a Ferris wheel. Her cousins were shocked that Henrietta had cancer, but Henrietta seemed intent on keeping the news as low-key as possible. “Nothing serious wrong with me…I’m fine,” she said.

At first, it seemed that Henrietta might be right. Her tumor disappeared after her second radium treatment. The radiation treatments that followed were considered a precaution, to kill off any cancer tissue that remained. After each treatment, she walked to Margaret’s house to wait for Day. For the first week, she seemed healthy and in good spirits. She spent the hours at Margaret’s playing cards and chatting.

Somehow, in the process of treating Henrietta’s cancer, her doctors had missed telling her that her treatments would leave her infertile. After a week of radiation treatments, Henrietta asked her doctors when she would be able to have another child. Doctors explained that she never could, and she told them that she would not have accepted treatment at all if she had known.

Three weeks after the radiation therapy began, Henrietta began feeling weak and sick. She found it difficult to manage the short walk from Johns Hopkins to Margaret’s, and she could only sleep when she arrived. One day she showed Margaret her stomach, which was coal-black from the radiation, and said, “Lord, it just feels like that blackness be spreadin all inside me.”