Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Book Review : The Immortal Life Of Henrietta Lacks ( by Rebecca Skloot )

Buy online HERE.

"HeLa cell /ˈhlɑː/, also Hela or hela cell, is a cell type in an immortal cell line used in scientific research. It is the oldest and most commonly used human cell line. The line was derived from cervical cancer cells taken on February 8, 1951 from Henrietta Lacks, a patient who died of her cancer on October 4, 1951. The cell line was found to be remarkably durable and prolific which warrants its extensive use in scientific research" - Wikipedia .

But Wiki hardly mentions anything about Henreitta Lacks apart from the fact that the cells were taken without her knowledge or consent. Nor do the 14,10,00,000 entries that a google search by the same name throws up. With the cells contributing so much to medical advancement, she certainly deserved for her story to be told. Believe me, lesser mortals have had their lives immortalized in literature and/or celluloid. 

Finally, it took a award winning science writer to take up a story like this one. The author Rebecca Skloot has done a commendable job in telling the story of the poor black tobacco farmer whose family still cannot afford healthcare. With a storyline that deals with Henreitta's life, that of her children and other descendants who believe that they have been cheated out of some very valuable ( true to an extent ), medical progress made possible by experimenting upon HeLa cells and the existential debate of ethics in research, she makes the reader go back and forth between various dates instead of putting things in a chronological order. I find that it is something that has worked in her favor and made the events in the book more relevant from an audience perspective. 

She paints a realistic sketch of what it must have felt to live in a tobacco plantation, the stark realty of the black society, their hush-hush existence during the days of apartheid and finally a family that is torn apart by the loss of a maternal figure, drugs, alcohol and not the least, poverty. The chapter where she is first diagnosed with the tumor and the rapid sequence of it's progression is quite scary. But then, that's cancer for you. It's swift and brutal at the best, and terrifying at the worst.

There are quite a few interesting insights into the kind of research that went into developing a cancer treatment methodology. It has quite some interesting bits, including one about the usage of radium. But more startling is the total absence of ethics in medical research in the 50's era. 'Many scientists believed that since patients were treated for free in the public wards, it was fair to use them as research subjects as a form of payment' more that summarizes the code on conduct of the medical practitioners of the time. 

The most galling part of the book is however the way the Lackses have been treated. Exploited by all and sundry, they are deeply suspicious of the anyone who as much as tries to gather any information about Henrietta. Sadly, the author's quest to get some recognition for the poor family ends on a heartbreaking note when Henrietta's daughter dies quite unexpectedly.

Science nonfiction is a recent thing for me as I am looking to move on from the days when I would curl up in bed with a Robin Cook on my hands. And my curiosity in this book was piqued even as I struggled to make my way through 'The Emperor of All Maladies' by Siddhartha Mukherjee . This one has a definite emotional connect and it hits all the right spots. But one must have a genuine interest in medicine or medical history to go through it's length.

A great book if (and only if) it is the right fit for you!!

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Regret (Haiku)

Most of us live with a regret about something that we did or left undone. If we could, we would go back in time and change it for the better ( who know ?? ) but usually it is too late. Even for a 'Sorry'.

Image credits :

" Glazed Sheath of sorrow, 
Unforgiving shards of pain.
Regret! Rears it's head."

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Cervical Cancer Vaccine - What You Need to Know

Cervical Cancer - Cancer of the cervix, uterus and vagina are commonly grouped under Cervical Cancer. It is the fourth most common cause of death due to cancer among women. But interestingly enough, it is the most common cancer detected among women in the age group 15-34 years. Among women, it is the only type of cancer that can be caused by sexual transmission.

Causes - Most doctors agree that cervical cancer can only develop if one has been exposed to HPV ( Human Papilloma Virus ), a sexually transmitted infection. And the risk increases as one is exposed to multiple strains of the virus, which is the case when one has multiple sexual partners. But at the same time, not everyone who is exposed to HPV will develop cervical cancer. HPV is just another infection that peters out by itself or goes away when treated with drugs.

The secondary risk factors which increase one's chances of developing Cervical Cancer are -
  • Smoking 
  • Weakened Immune System - HIV, AIDS and other disease/age can lower immunity 
  • Long term exposure to Oral contraceptives
  • Multiple Pregnancies are also linked to increased risk.
Who is at a risk ?

1. Women having multiple sexual partners.
2. Women having a single sexual partner who in turn has multiple sexual partners.

Therefore, one can safely conclude that any sexually active woman is at a risk of developing Cervical cancer.

Prevention via Safe Sex - It is impossible to develop Cervical Cancer without being exposed to HPV. Hence practicing safe sex certainly helps in preventing it. But HPV can be transmitted through contact with  infected genital skin, mucous membranes, or bodily fluids. Therefore, a condom cannot provide full protection against it.

Prevention via Vaccination - Gardasil and Cervarix do not provide protection against all strains of HPV. It targets only those HPV strains that are known to cause Cervical cancer. But when one is already exposed to one or more strains of HPV, the vaccine efficiency is reduced. Moreover, the vaccine does not treat HPV if one is already infected nor it is effective in preventing other sexually transmitted infections like chlamydia, gonorrhea, herpes, HIV, syphilis, and trichomoniasis.

But the vaccine provides some protection against anal cancer, vulvar cancer, vaginal cancer and genital warts. The vaccine's efficiency increases if given at a younger age.

Right Age for Vaccination - The right time for this vaccination is before the onset of sexual activity. That is why it is recommended that it should be given to girls in the age group 11-12 years. But one can still take the vaccine till the age of 26. In countries like US and UK, Cervical cancer vaccination is not recommended for women above 26 years of age. Instead, they are advised to go for regular PAP smear test.

Who Cannot Take the Vaccine ? - Pregnant ladies are advised to stay away from the vaccine.

Note - Once a person is already infected with HPV, the efficiency of this vaccine is reduced.  Or, in some cases, it may even become redundant. Therefore, getting vaccinated is no excuse for skipping the Pap smear test once one crosses 25 years of age ( or even younger if one is sexually active ).

Monday, May 23, 2016

Shame on Me ???

Or is that shame on you ?? For making me ( and all women in general ) feel that menstruation is a cursed act of God and any and all visual images related to it should be hidden from public view. Or at least kept wrapped under layers and layers of brown paper. For that is what everyone including my neighborhood chemist would like me to believe.

Image source :

It so happened that I paid a visit to the neighboring chemist to buy a packet of baby diapers. And since it was almost time for 'that time of the month' , I asked the guy to throw in a packet of my sanitary napkins along with the baby stuff. Now as soon as he put it on the counter, i nonchalantly picked it up and put it in a clear transparent bag that I was carrying with me. As I shoved the money towards him, I happened to catch his expression. The fellow seemed too scandalized for words. I followed his fingers as they pointed at my bag and more specifically at it's offending content. Taking pity on him, I put the bag back on the counter. Almost magically a brown paper bag materialized in his hands and in a jiffy he had the packet covered and placed in my bag. Then only did his expression return to normal. Ok, let's amend that to 'almost normal'.

This was just one of the random incidents that I recollected when I reminisced about my tryst with the sanitary napkin. Everytime I have felt pity and disgust in equal measure for these ill-informed mortals who have been taught to stay away from the 'bad blood'. This wonderful video that I found on FB proves that for all our technological advances, we remain slaves to our own prejudices .

What do you see when you look at this video ? A man peeing in public which is a common sight in India versus a woman holding a packet of sanitary napkins in a see-through bag ( a sort of firsts, isn't it ). At a cardinal level, both of these have to do with the discharge of bodily fluids. But while most people tend to ignore the man's indiscretion, the reactions to the woman perceived imprudence are just about hilarious. Especially the bit when one elderly lady gestured the guy to step away from the girl. What was she expecting ? Was the packet going to blow up if it sensed any kind of male presence ? Or did it contain some kind of contagion that could eliminate the male of the species if unleashed on mankind ?. None, as per common knowledge. They are just harmless layers of gel designed to soak up liquids. But getting back to the man, is there anything aesthetic about a man flashing his dangly bits in public ? If not, why does everyone (save a few) prefer to turn a blind eye to him ? To me, it merely seems that men are allowed get away with anything. And we, the so called 'progressive lot' are just too afraid to raise our voice and do away with this mindless status quo.

Agreed, all that blood can make one swoon ( ahem i remember being told that men are the stronger lot ? ) but girls/women of a certain age have to deal with it every month. It is just a sign that the female reproductive system is up and working. Sanitary napkins are just a part and parcel of the whole thing. Not something that needs to be flaunted ( it's hardly that chic) but neither to be kept hidden under wraps. At times, the whole hypocrisy surrounding it seems to be similar to the one regarding the usage of condoms. We know everyone is doing it ( going by the billion plus population ) but we still prefer to live in denial. This scene from the movie 'PK' exposes our hypocrisy in all it's gilded glory.

But honestly, do you really need a martian to arrive on our planet just for raising all those relevant questions ? Why can't we think like 'PK' does ? Let drop the hypocrisy and adopt some rational thinking !! 

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Book Review: The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles ( by Haruki Murakami )

Profound and abstract at the same time, 'The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles' has been one of the most impressive books that I have read in recent days. Taking off with a mundane beginning that has a couple searching for their missing cat, the storyline quickly delves into their disintegrating marriage, a host of psychic characters, and surprisingly the evil happenings of World War II. It is not a neat little plot where all the strings are tied up but more like an magnificent abstract canvas on which the artist has painted discrete images with bold strokes.

Toru Okada's life in suburban Tokya is less than idyllic. He has lost his job and is hardly interested in finding another one. But when his wife Kumiko leaves him, he is completely shattered. Then there is his strange relationship with a sixteen year old girl who is fascinated with death. He discovers a dried up well and climbs down to the bottom to think with renewed clarity. A dream encounter with a prostitute in a hotel room leaves him with a purple scar on the face. And this scar is what draws another psychic woman towards him. She helps him with his search for Kumiko but at a price. He must turn into a 'prostitute of the mind' .

These surreal happenings in Okada's life are juxtaposed with the spine chilling and often nauseating events of the World War . One of the most memorable sections of the book is the skinning of a prisoner that is described in morbid detail. It is just too grotesque to be forgotten in a long time. The zoo massacre comes a close second on the grotesque scale.

And then there is the story of the shitty island which is actually symbolic of too many things than happen in the world. Things that propagate themselves by their own power to such an extent that after a point on one is capable of putting a stop to it. Not even the one who started it in the first place. Too philosophical ? Yes, it is .

If you have been wondering about the book's title,  'The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles' is derived from the mechanical screeching of a bird that is portrayed as the harbinger of catastrophe. While it packs in quite a punch, this book is only recommended for die-hard fans of Murakami !!

[ If you looking to pick Murakami's works, I would recommend something like 'Kafka on the Shore' or 'Norwegian Wood' for the beginners. ]