Modern cancer research owes a great deal to one African-American woman and her immortal cancer cells. Her name was Henrietta Lacks. After her untimely death from cervical cancer at just 31 years old in 1951, doctors discovered that unlike other cancer cells, hers would live on when cultured and fed.
The cells were named HeLa after her and became the first immortal human cell line. This cell line has since formed the basis of modern-day cancer research and disease prevention advancements into the polio vaccine and AIDS.
It should be noted that these cells were taken from Henrietta without her consent. It was only 20 years after her death, when a researcher contacted her family to check their predisposition to the disease, did the family discover the ethical indiscretion.
As we approach Black History Month, I find it interesting that despite the instrumental, albeit unwitting role this Black woman played in advancing cancer research, Black people are still more likely to die of the disease than their White counterparts.
Cancer is often perceived to be a relatively new disease but ancient manuscripts as far back as 3,000BC in Egypt are believed to show that cancers existed, according to research published in the journal PLOS One. Eight cases of the disease are documented in these Egyptian records and at the time, surgery using a fire drill, which administered heat to excise and destroy cancers was used.
Mummified corpses have been discovered dating back to 2250BC with evidence of the disease, and in Croatia, there is also evidence of a 120,000-year-old Neanderthal fossilised rib with a cancerous tumour in the bone. But these cases were believed to be rare and may have been linked to genetics, according to Abi Begho, founder of The Lake Foundation – a UK charity that aims to improve the health of the African Caribbean community through health promotion, early detection, research and support.
She was one of four speakers at the Queen Nzingha Lecture on Cancer, Psychology and Health in Birkbeck University, London on 28 September 2013.
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Begho pointed out that only 10% of cancers are genetically linked, which means that making lifestyle changes could minimise our predisposition to the disease.
Begho debunked some cancer myths and paid special attention during the lecture on educating the largely female audience on disease prevention, spotting the signs and remaining positive, and signposting to access support.
She pointed out that although Black women have a slightly lower risk of developing breast cancer, delayed diagnosis, and mistrust of the health sector means that their chances of survival are greatly reduced.
Breast cancer is by far the biggest killer of all the cancers affecting women in the UK. There were almost 50,000 new incidences of breast cancer in the UK in 2010, and although survival rates have doubled in the last 40 years, cancer remains on the increase.
Black women are genetically predisposed to a different type of breast cancer than their White counterparts, which is more aggressive, develops very quickly and is harder to treat.
While other types of breast cancer have receptors on their cells that can be targeted with many current treatments, the triple negative strain breast cancer lacks the three receptors oestrogen, progesterone, and human epidermal growth factor 2, and so does not respond well to these therapies.
And with inflammatory breast cancer, the strain looks like a rash and is aggressive. Coupled with the problem of late diagnosis, this provided a deadly mix.
“We haven’t quite identified the risk of developing this type of cancer but it is more likely to be genetic,” said Begho.
Black people are believed to be at a slightly lower risk of developing cancer compared to their White counterparts because of their diets. Research on Japanese families that moved from their homes to the US showed that those that held on to their eating habits instead of adopting a Westernised diet were at a lower risk of developing cancers.
So what can you do?
- Reduce alcohol consumption – alcohol is linked to mouth, throat, gullet and voice box cancer which are hard to treat
- Reduce weight – obesity can be linked to prostrate, breast, womb and bowel cancers. It is advised that people exercise for 30-minute exercise that induces sweat every other day as it evens out oestrogen spikes
- Reduce exposure to chemicals thought to trigger cancers – BPA, hormone disrupter such as parabens, and industrial solvents such as PCBs
- Even Black people should avoid exposure to the sun
- Reduce your exposure to oestrogen which can increase incidence of cancers in foods such as hormone-pumped chicken, milk and oestrogen.
- Soya production in the West is different to Asia where soya is also eaten. The difference is the concentration of soya and therefore oestrogen, is higher compared to in the fermented versions eaten in Asia.
- You know your body best so monitor any changes if they are still there after three weeks, go to your doctor
- Know your rights and if you don’t get the support you require, tell your doctor you want a second opinion or a referral
- Ask for genetic testing which can identify if you have a faulty gene linked to certain strains of cancer.
- Know your family history. If you have three or more people in your family with cancer, it is worth sharing this information with your doctor
…..and finally do your research. There is a wealth of information out there including www.geneticalliance.org.uk , betterdays.uk.com, http://www.cancerblackcare.org.uk, or www.bsgm.org.uk, and books such as a ‘Passage to Power: Natural Menopause Revolution’ by Leslie Kenton, which talks about how you can control your hormonal health.
And don’t forget October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month!