Oprah Stars in Henrietta Lacks Movie – The African American Woman Who Unknowingly Contributed to Vital Medical Research

I read Henrietta Lacks book and was astounded by this amazing story. It’s a story inextricably connected to the dark history of medical experimentation on African Americans. It shed light on my challenging views on the medical industry in America and played a huge role in my decision not to attend medical school.


Oprah Winfrey will star in an upcoming film, I am very excited to see, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. This film depicts the life of Henrietta, an African American women with cancer whose cancerous cells were used without her permission.

Her name was Henrietta Lacks, but scientists know her as HeLa. She was a poor black tobacco farmer whose cells were taken without her knowledge. In 1951 she became one of the most important tools in medicine, vital for developing the polio vaccine, cloning, gene mapping, in vitro fertilization, and more.

Henrietta’s cells have been bought and sold by the billions, yet she remains virtually unknown, and her family can’t afford health insurance.

Lacks’ story has previously been the subject of an award-winning documentary, The Way of All Flesh, directed by Adam Curtis.

Duplicating cells is a form of immortality and a serious medical ethics violation. Who knows how many untold stories similar to Henrietta’s still remain. Perhaps your cells are being used, unknowingly to create clones, manufactured organs and God only knows what else they can do without our knowing.

Interestingly enough, companies like Ancestry.com have made a lucrative business out of getting consumers to send their DNA by way of cheek swabs to their lab for ethnic analysis. However, one must consider other ways their DNA can be used after reading phenomenal books like The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks and the Medical Apartheid by author Harriet Washington.


Just think about it for a second. Most people who are interested in learning their ethnic background and where their ancestors come from are African American, for the simple fact that we were brought here as slaves and lost connections to our ancestors and the specific countries in Africa they were stolen from.

I can tell you from personal experience, I’ve experienced inequality in the doctor’s office. For what reasons you might ask? My multi-racial ethnic make-up and my low-income economic status as a child.

Intuitively, I’ve always felt that there is a catch-22 with anything in America that is labeled free. My mother had medical assistance as a child and the downside to that is those with low-income are at the mercy of doctors or should I say the interns who flood clinics in Urban and low-income areas.

Medical research is constantly underway. The medical apartheid still remains a fresh aspect of history that has me constantly on red alert every time I enter a medical facility. Now that I have a child, that fear is amplified.

Below is an excellent video from the author of Medical Apartheid Harriet Washington. She gives you an overview of the history and current context of medical inequality and experimentation against African Americans.

What happened to Henrietta Lacks is not just a story to reflect in a historical context, it is a reminder that we have to be smart and critical regarding the medical care we are offered today, for ourselves, our communities and our children. Raising awareness is key and asking doctors and medical professionals the right questions along with conducting our own research is imperative to receiving the best medical care.

In addition, what is our rights if we find out we were unknowingly violated in a medical facility? 

Intuitive healing is a technique that I have used throughout my life to help me navigate through the scandalous terrain of the medical industry. In my upcoming book, When My Body Turned Against Me: How I beat Graves Disease. I go into great detail regarding how my instincts strongly facilitated my healing.

Intuition can tell you what questions to ask your doctor. It can lead you to research in great depth what you are being diagnosed before accepting treatment and medication.

Doctor with patient

A few tips and tricks to ensure you’re not being discriminated against in the doctor’s office:

1. Learn your family history before going to the doctor for a visit. Knowledge is power. Ask your mother and father questions regarding their health history. Ask them any symptoms they’ve had and past diagnosis. Also, ask them what treatment they received and how their body responded to that treatment. Write all this down in a journal to pass along to your kids and keep records. This is critical. Do the same with your

Write all this down in a journal to pass along to your kids and keep records. This is critical. Do the same with your siblings, it is very important you understand the genetic component of disease, diet, and lifestyle within your own family.

**Ask your doctor for their credentials. What is their official title? Are they an actual doctor, a physician assistant? An intern? A nurse?’** You want a doctor, not anything less. Reschedule if you have to with a real doctor.**

**Ask your doctor how long they have been practicing. Do not be afraid to ask your doctor questions, they are a paid service, you have the right!**

2. Get a second opinionAny major disease that you are being diagnosed with needs a second opinion. Make sure the second opinion you receive is from a doctor in a different city and different healthcare facility.

Every time a doctor takes blood or collects fluids for test ask them what the purpose of the test is for and if you can get a copy of the results. File the results in a folder for your own records. This also ensures the doctor is not taking cells or fluids from you for reasons you are not aware of.

**Until you get the second opinion, do not move forward on a plan for treatment. 

3. Research what the doctor diagnosed you with. Is it a new disease? An old disease? Are the symptoms consistent with the disease and what you’re actually experiencing? Has all the testing been done or ordered to determine the diagnosis is accurate?

If symptoms are inconsistent, Google on credible websites like Mayoclinic.com the symptoms that you are experiencing and write down the diseases or conditions most consistent with those symptoms. Compare that list to your journal that has your medical history of your family members and look for consistencies.

Next, bring the conditions you researched along with family medical history to your doctor and demand that test be done to rule out those diseases.


4. After all, the test is completed by your doctor, a proper diagnosis should be made. The next step is determining which treatment option is best for you. Do your research on treatment options.

5. Look on the Mayo Clinics website regarding the disease you’ve been diagnosed with and look at all treatment options. Write down those treatment options and Google them. Are they effective? What are the alternatives? Most importantly, what are the risks and side effects?

6. Make an intuitive and informed decision on what treatment option you feel will work best for your and proceed with that. Pray about it, meditate on, connect with your higher power for validation.

7. If after taking medication you feel the side effects are too much for your to handle, schedule an appointment right away and chose a different treatment plan.

8. If your doctor is giving you bad vibes, switch doctors immediately!

I hope you read the book or check out the upcoming movie airing on HBO soon! Knowledge is power and intuitive and well-researched decisions can decrease your chances of medical discrimination and ethical abuse.

If you have a story you would like to share regarding recent medical discrimination, unauthorized experimentation or inequality in medical care, please send your story below. I will be publishing a book in the near future to share these stories. You can choose to remain anonymous and your name and doctors name will not be cited. Thank you!

By Janell Hihi