Chapter 8 Summary

1951

After Henrietta Lacks’s radiation treatments were complete, doctors saw no more signs of tumors in her body. Henrietta did not believe that she was cured; she told them she thought her cancer was spreading. They told her that she was fine and sent her home. There is nothing in their notes to indicate that she questioned them further. In the 1950s, it was not customary for patients to question doctors’ judgment, or for poor black people to question highly educated white people.

Over the next couple of months, Henrietta repeatedly returned to the hospital to complain of pain. At first, she was told she was fine. After a while, however, doctors found an enormous tumor in her abdomen. Just weeks after they had claimed she was healthy, they diagnosed her with inoperable cancer. There was nothing they could do to help her. Her cousin Sadie later said that Henrietta did not waste away from her illness but did appear to be in great pain: “Her eyes was tellin you that she wasn’t gonna be alive no more.”

A week after declaring her cancer inoperable, doctors X-rayed Henrietta’s body again and found that her tumors had spread further. They began a process of radiation treatment, hoping to reduce the tumors slightly so that Henrietta would not experience so much pain. They did not explain that the treatment was only palliative; she and her family believed they were trying to cure her.

Eventually doctors checked Henrietta into the hospital. While she was there, they tried to take a new sample of her tumor, but it did not survive as the first one had. They also tried to ease her pain with half a dozen different painkillers. None of these had much effect, and there was nothing else to do to help her. Her family visited her daily during this period. When nurses said that it was too upsetting for Henrietta to see her children, Day stopped bringing them inside. However, he brought them to the building and let them play outside her hospital window.

Most people say that George Gey never met Henrietta. There is certainly no written record that he did. But one of his colleagues, a microbiologist, claims that he visited Henrietta in her hospital room just before she died. According to this source, Gey told Henrietta about her cells, and she said “she was glad her pain would come to some good for someone.” The Lacks family does not believe this really happened.