Can You Control the Cells in your Body?

Henrietta Lacks' cells

I recently read The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, and if you haven’t read this book, I highly recommend it. It’s about a woman in the 1950’s whose cells are used to propel science’s progress—without her consent. She was a black woman and she couldn’t walk into the general entrance to the building—that was a white people only entrance at that time. Her cancer ended up killing her, and the doctors never informed her family that her cells had been taken, nor that they had been kept alive. The family found out more than twenty years later. It’s hard to know whether they were treated this way because of their race, or because of the times—the author mentions that even today there are no hard and fast rules about getting informed consent when you have tissue samples taken at a doctor’s office. Which basically means that the same thing that happened to Henrietta could happen to anyone, even today. The reviews on the book included one that said it read like a novel—which I took to mean that it was hard to believe that it could be true that a patient and her family could really be treated in such a disgraceful way.

Second in my recent reading list is a book that Wayne Dyer recommended, and said was one of Elvis’ favorites. He didn’t need to say another word about the book—I love Wayne Dyer, and my dad loved Elvis. So on my nightstand currently is a little book called The Impersonal Life, and in one of its chapters, the one on consciousness, intelligence, and will, it talks about the cells that make up a body. It says one cell inside you is to your whole being as your consciousness is to the divine source (using whatever name you prefer) that runs this show. This book packs a punch—it’s hard to take in all that it’s saying, but it’s comparing the cellular level of your body to our ability to take in and understand what’s going on in a cosmic, universal kind of way. I’ve always felt kind of like a cell, maybe in the eye—I can’t see everything, just a bit of the action, and I don’t know what the cells in the liver are up to, but I want to understand everything that’s happening more than I do. “The Impersonal Life” argues that we are all one in consciousness—the cell, you, and the divine source. The book also posits that the cells in your body are following the divine source’s intelligence and will—doing what they do because they’re being directed to do that by the cosmos.

So on the one hand, we have a woman who lived in a time where the doctors took her cancerous cells, kept them alive, and multiplied them over and over again, running tests on them to this very day. Tests that include combining her cells with cells of rats and other species, injecting them with all kinds of diseases, and generally torturing these cells. And then on the other hand, we have the idea that our cells are doing what they’re doing because the universe’s director made them that way intentionally and planned it all out to happen just this way. Is everything predestined? And does that include the painful, subjectively terrible stuff including when your dead relative’s cells are being manipulated in petri dishes in labs all over the world? Henrietta’s cells have helped doctors cure tuberculosis and other diseases—and her family is noted in the book as saying that they are glad that her cells have helped so many people. Still, I wouldn’t begrudge them wishing it had been anyone else’s cells who had been used.

There’s the idea that if you go with the flow of the universe, if you tap into the universe’s intelligence, and will, and consciousness, you will be directing yourself and your cells in the exact manner that the universe wants you to—controlling yourself down to the cellular level. Is it possible? Or is it out of our control?

I have a hard time reconciling all of these ideas—they still feel like a bit of a mishmash in my brain and spilling out onto this blog. Perhaps because I’m just a cell in the body of the universe.

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Human Fragility, Emotionally and Literally

Fragile—that’s how my heart feels. Fragile heart syndrome is not a condition that’s listed in the DSM…but I know it’s real—I can feel it. This weekend I will be a Big Cabin Buddy volunteer at Camp Erin, a camp for kids who are grieving the loss of someone they love. My father died when I was a teenager; this camp is a way for me to feel like I am helping others through something that was one of the hardest times in my life. But going into it, I always feel like I am packing up to go to war. I don’t know what the terrain will be like, and the enemy—grief—I can’t spy on in advance and know what kind of guns it’s toting into this battle. I know how camp was in years past, but it’s different every year—for me, and for the kids. I learn more every year about grief, about resiliency, and about myself. Some years it almost feels normal most of the time, just another summer camp full of squirrely kids who want to swim and run and hang out with their fellow campers. It feels that way until we get to the first evening’s memorial service, where each child holds a picture of their loved one who has died, carries it up to the front of the group and tacks it onto the group’s memorial board. Luckily, that service is done in a magical outdoor space, surrounded by giant trees that have seen it every year, and help to hold all the emotions of the kids.

I wish I had had a camp like that to go to when I was a kid. No one in my 9th grade class had a clue what it was like to lose a parent. Some of them tried to empathize: one group even made me a card with a beautiful butterfly drawing on the front of it that I have to this day. But what it would have been like to talk to other kids who were going through it—I can only imagine. Now that I have been able to sit with some of the kids over the years at this camp, I can see just how much it would have helped me to not feel so alone, such an outcast, in a time of life—teeangehood—when it was already so easy for me to feel like an outsider.

So why am I feeling fragile right now? Camp’s not new to me—I know exactly what to expect: rough sleep on hard mats, camp food, and a bunch of kids, some more fun than others, some in more pain than others, all of them immensely real and loveable. I’m feeling especially fragile this year because I’ve been trying to face lots of my childhood dragons and ghosts, and it’s been a hard fight. I don’t have a lot of energy to give out, and I’m anticipating needing to be “on” a fair amount of the time. It’s not more than I can handle, I know that—but it’s asking me to pull out all the stops.

The other night I dreamed of a little girl who was eating swords. She didn’t understand the magic trick—instead of pulling the swords back out, she ate the swords whole. I tried to get her to stop, but she was so proud of herself and excited to show off her magic skills—she kept eating swords. I finally asked her—“How are you going to get those out of your stomach now? Are you going to poop those out?” She looked at me with annoyance written all over her face, and ignored my question. I am that little girl—she is me. We have been trying to put on a good illusion, a good show, and instead of learning the trick the right way, we’ve gone and filled up our stomach with swords. That’ll make us sick, probably killing us, but we don’t want to look at that.

I don’t want to put on a show anymore. I just want to be real, and feel fragile, and still pull out all the stops, everyday. And maybe fragile is exactly how I’m supposed to be feeling right now—to remind myself that I can live through that feeling. I used to fall apart when I felt fragile, and sometimes I still do—but I’ve learned how to handle stresses and grief in much better, non-sword-eating ways over the years. My feelings can be scary, but I know that feeling them is better than squashing them down and trying to ignore them—that never ends well. So now I know that that fragile feeling is a sign that I have feelings to mull over and to let out.

The kids who are packing their backpacks and preparing for camp are most likely feeling more fragile than I am. I hope that this is a healing weekend for them—and I hope they learn this weekend that they can feel fragile and keep going, too. And be all the stronger for it.