How Henrietta Lacks Helped Prevent the Cancer That Took Her Life

Patient Expert
Department of Historic Resources/Wikimedia Commons

Just 75 years ago, cervical cancer was one of the leading causes of death in women. Then, in the mid-1940s, the Pap smear was introduced to detect cervical cancer, and it would be imperative to the future of women’s health. More recently, a spotlight has been placed on someone who went previously unrecognized for her contribution to advancements in cervical cancer prevention. Does the name Henrietta Lacks ring a bell? She is also part of the reason for the decreasing rates of cervical cancer.

In the 1950s, CNN reported, a 31-year-old woman named Henrietta Lacks was diagnosed with an aggressive form of cervical cancer. A surgeon took cells from her cervix without her knowledge and consent. Shortly after her cells were removed, she died due to complications of the cancer, but unbeknownst to her, her legacy would live on forever: Her cells were used for research that ultimately helped lead to a vaccine for human papillomavirus (HPV), a sexually transmitted disease that in some cases can lead to cervical cancer.

On April 22, 2017, a 2010 book written on the woman’s story called “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” by Rebecca Skloot debuted as a film on HBO. The film raises questions about consent in the medical world and challenges the fact that doctors are now making billions due to Lacks’ cells while her family was never offered any financial support.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, most sexually active people will get HPV at some point in their lives, although many never show symptoms. In some cases, the virus goes away on its own, never causing additional problems. Some types of HPV can lead to genital warts, and others can cause the types of cervical cell changes that may lead to cancer if untreated. But thanks to Henrietta Lacks and other research, cancer-causing types of HPV are no longer a death sentence.

Although there is now a vaccine to prevent HPV, it was not FDA-approved until 2006. At that time, it was only approved for women between the ages of 9-26.  Years later, it was approved for males between the same ages. This means that the millions of people who were 26 years of age prior to 2006 missed out on the vaccine. According to The American Cancer Society, cervical cancer typically appears between the ages of 20-50.

The only signs of cervical cancers are abnormal bleeding between periods, consistent vaginal discharge that can appear as pink, watery, or brown, and changes in periods such as heavier bleeding that lasts longer than usual. Because symptoms can be minimal, it’s important for women, especially those over the age of 30, to receive screenings for the cancer, even if they have gotten the HPV vaccine.

A pap smear tests for abnormalities but is not the final step in detecting cervical cancer. If abnormal test results are determined, a cervical biopsy may be performed, which includes taking a small amount of tissue from the cervix for further examination.

Thanks to cervical cancer vaccines, screening and other technology, cervical cancer is now highly preventable and treatable.