The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot……

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art from www.amazon.com

This non-fiction story is about the life of Henrietta Lacks, a poor black woman who died from cervical cancer in the early 1950s.

While Henrietta was undergoing treatment for her cancer at Johns Hopkins Hospital, Dr. George Gey  (a researcher) obtained some of her cells – without her knowledge or consent. Those cells were the first human cells to remain “alive” outside of the human body. Sadly, Henrietta died – but miraculously, her cells live on even today.

And the study of those cells has led to amazing advancements in medicine, including the polio vaccine, various cancer treatments, and so much more.

Normally, I read a book with my eyes wide open – but this book I read with my mouth wide open. I simply could not believe the liberties that doctors were allowed (and by the by, still are allowed) to take with human tissues. No consent necessary. Even if they will profit from it.

And it’s not just taking samples – it’s testing. While doctors and researchers were dissecting and analyzing cells outside of Henrietta’s body, other doctors were conducting research – including injecting cancer cells into their patients – without asking permission or forgiveness.

Rebecca Skloot does a lovely job of introducing us to the Lacks family and sharing their journey with us.

It was by complete accident that the Lacks children even learned that Henrietta’s cells were taken from her and being used all over the world. The cells were named HeLa cells (the first two letters of Henrietta’s first and last names). And they have not profited in any way from their discovery or continued sale – even though they struggle to pay their own medical bills.

This book sounded a little intimidating to me because of the science/research tilt – but Rebecca explains everything so easily that even I (a mere English major) can understand it.

The Lacks family saga saddened me tremendously. In a land where these types of things just aren’t supposed to happen, they simply do happen.

The bottom line for me is – please use my discarded tissue for research if it will help other people, but you really should ask me first if it’s okay. And if you are going to make millions on my tissue, please share at least some of those profits. Yes, thank you.

This is an amazing story and I think you will be very glad you read it!

You can purchase it on Amazon here.

And NPR did a story here.

Follow up with David A Koop…….

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When David Koop sent me his book to review, he wrote in his letter that I could reach out with any questions I had. Of course, I had questions – this man is fighting a killer disease and he writes a book called “Cancer – It’s a Good Thing I Got It!” So I wrote to him with two questions.

David and his ostrich boots

Honestly, I figured he’d be a little busy with his family, doctors appointments, speaking engagements, book signings, and, I dunno, waging a war on cancer. But true to his word, David wrote me back. Here is what he had to say…

1. You took a big risk with your title and I am curious about that, especially given the battle you are waging. Why was it important to you to put a cheery spin on such a daunting topic – even though you do not write the rest of the book from a PollyAnna perspective?

The title came from two things in my mind.  First was the very real fact that just a few short days after getting the diagnosis I would have fallen over dead. Because of the bone and tissue scans the doctors performed to diagnose the cancer, they found that massive pulmonary embolism and a few days later it broke loose. Had the filter not been in place, I would have fallen over dead. So in my mind I am very lucky I got cancer, for if not, I would not be here, period.

Second is my understanding that each and every year, depending where you look, there are about 150,000 to 200,000 books published. That is quite a bit of noise to be heard through. I wanted people to notice my book and to understand from the title that it would not be anything like so many other books. Here is something different, fun and interesting to read.

2. Now that the book is out there, is there anything you wish you had included?

I am fortunate to say that I am very happy with how the book came out and more importantly that it is being received so well by so many different people across the globe. My message is being heard and it is helping people and that warms my heart and gives me motivation to get up and push through those days that are just so hard. I am making a difference in the world, who can really ask for more?

As I said in my review, there is a lot to take away from this book whether you are battling cancer or not. David’s attitude is contagious and his optimism infectious. It is a testament to the power of being grateful for every blessing and taking advantage of every moment. Thanks David for sharing your story! Your story is being heard and you are making a difference.

(David’s book can be purchased at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Outskirts Press, or the Someday Group.

Cancer – It’s a Good Thing I Got It by David A. Koop……..

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When I first saw this title come across my email inbox, I have to say, I was skeptical. I thought the title was risky. Who could possibly be thankful for getting cancer – especially osteo sarcoma (a form of bone cancer)? And I as I turned the last page of the book, I understood that David Koop would rather not have cancer than have it. But what David beautifully helps us realize is that it doesn’t much matter what we want – sometimes we just have to deal with what we have. And the fact is, cancer did save David’s life – in the tests for diagnosing his cancer, the doctors found an embolism that would have surely killed him had it not been treated immediately.

His motto throughout the book is “Decide then do.” I love that. David doesn’t seem to have many regrets – disappoints, sure – but not regrets. What a fabulous way to live.

Cancer - It's a good thing I got it

Cancer Memoir by David Koop

What I liked most about David’s story is that it is a wonderful balance – he never underestimates the challenges he faces but he is not trying to scare or shock anyone either. And he is never preachy. His matter-of-fact retelling of his story never asks for pity and never gives up hope.

David was a single father of a seven-year-old boy when his diagnosis came in. His doctors told him frankly to “get his affairs in order.” That was in 2006. In 2012, he is still giving motivational talks, still writing a blog, and still working with The Someday Group. There are days when he can’t get out of bed and days when he is in a lot of pain, but he seems to grab tight to those moments when he isn’t in pain and make the most of them.

It is clear that this is a story about cancer and David begins by telling us his diagnosis story. Then he sidetracks and gives us the history of the important people in his life. Those stories take us about halfway through the book. That was a little frustrating because I wanted to hear right away about his battle. I wanted to get to the end and learn how he is doing now. But that is the way life goes, right? We have to become who we are and journey to our current situation – then delve in to where we are. And, as David shares, waiting is often the hardest part of the cancer journey – waiting for tests, waiting for treatments, waiting for answers, and just waiting, waiting, waiting.

David’s story is honest without really being emotional. For the most part, it is easy to read without crying – which is amazing given all that he faced and continues to face. But it is a story that should resonate with everyone who reads it – battling cancer or not – because it reminds us that time is precious and people are important. He doesn’t pretend that any of this was easy or that it should be. And he doesn’t waste time asking why or trying to change it. He fights hard with the determination of a parent who wants to raise his son. He proves that love can be a forceful weapon.

David begins each chapter with a quote. My favorite quote was the introduction to Chapter 29.

“Being defeated is often a temporary condition. Giving up is what makes it permanent”
~ Marilyn Vos Savant.

That just about says it all.

The Middle Place by Kelly Corrigan…..

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(There is always the chance that a any book discussion might reveal too much about an unread story – if you haven’t read the book and want to, you might want to wait to read what is written here – just in case.)

A friend gave me this book to read because I am also in the Middle Place – as are so many of my friends – that place where you are still someone’s child and yet someone’s parent. Other people have said that this book is about Kelly’s journey with cancer. I am not so sure about that. She certainly talks about her discovery, diagnosis, and treatment but the focus of this book seems to be more about her role as daughter. Her father’s daughter.

Nearly everything in the book rolls back to a connection with her dad. Which in many ways is lovely. I have a rock star dad and never want to lose my identity as his daughter. However, I was surprised that when her father was diagnosed with cancer she quit, for the most part, telling her own story of her own battle with her own cancer and adopted his. We hear about his doctor’s visits and his pain and his ability to fight his battle. And, oh by the way, Kelly seems to be doing fine – she becomes a subplot. She tosses aside the role of protagonist in her own story. There is even a point in the book where she is discussing treatment options for her father with her own doctor right before surgery. Her husband does point out that this is actually her surgery not her dad’s. No kidding.

Her father is surely a larger-than-life character with charm and charisma and he very obviously had a tremendous impact on how Kelly sees the world and rotates in it. He gives her strength that she cannot fully explain and love that she knows will never be taken away. He gives her the gift that I hope I am giving my children – acceptance.

There are several flashbacks in the book that don’t seem to relate to the thread of her life with cancer or to her life as a child and a parent. But they are snapshots of her life as a daughter. Certainly her experiences with her dad shaped the way she handles her own cancer but we miss some of the stories of the impact cancer must have had on her life and her family’s life. And, to be fair, part of that might be Kelly’s practical approach to “it is what it is”. She doesn’t seem to wallow in self pity or really even ask why cancer happened to her. She seems to just do what it takes to move forward – sometimes with a beer in hand.

She talks about her role as a mother and a wife and the role of being the daughter of a mother – which is, funny enough, different from being the daughter of a father.

Kelly has a sense of humor and does not take herself too seriously. Gotta love that. She is an optimist for sure. When she finds out she has cancer, she sends out an invitation to a party a year in the future that will be celebration of all that is behind them. And she is not afraid to admit her mistakes.

Best of all, Kelly has a wonderful way of saying things. When talking about gaining weight, she simply says, “before college added things to my body that laziness has created a permanent home for.” Now that does sound more poetic than “I am fatter than I used to be” or “wow, my jeans just must have shrunk in the dryer”. So her voice is engaging and entertaining.

All in all it was a good book. I finished it in 2 days which means it is a super easy read because I am not a fast reader at all. There were funny parts and sad parts. I am not sure she shared all the raw emotions that she felt – and maybe that made it easier to read because it was never gut-wrenchingly sad.

I am not sure Middle Place was the best title. Maybe “My Father’s Daughter” would have been better.

Maybe she didn’t focus as much on her role as a wife and a mother because there wasn’t the same urgency there. Her children and her husband were healthy and available and by her side. Her mother and her brothers seemed predictable and present – but please don’t read that as boring.

Her father battled cancer once before when Kelly was younger and living out of the country. Her family kept the news from her so that she wouldn’t end her adventure early. Maybe she wanted to reclaim possession of her presence in his life and treatment this time. Her father was battling for his life at the same time Kelly was and that must have been a scary place, whether it was in the middle or not.

And I guess everyone, every where is in some sort of Middle Place. We are all trying to figure out where we fit in the world and it’s often between opposites – student or teacher, parent or child, patient or caregiver, success or failure – and why can’t we simply be all of them at once? Why do we ever have to choose?