Few people reading this will know who Henrietta Lacks was because she died in 1951, at the age of 31. Even though she didn’t even graduate from high school, Henrietta is an unsung heroine within the cancer research community. She was a tobacco farmer. She had her first child at the age of 14. Her contribution to cancer research is felt to this day. She never even knew it.
In her selfless way, and like Henrietta Lacks, Catarina Gomez is also making her personal contribution to cancer research. The difference is that she knows what she is doing. Catarina is in her second year of college studies. She is educated. Unlike Henrietta, Catarina knows that the impact of her decision to participate in a long-term research endeavor will follow her for the rest of her life. This is what makes her a LampStrong Hero.
Ependymoma is a brain tumor. It is formed by the uncontrolled growth of specialized cells that line the brain’s cerebrospinal fluid manufacturing process. It is a very rare type of cancer. It is rare, that is, unless it happens to you. The treatment for ependymoma is a combination of surgical resection and radiation. Depending on the success of the initial resection, this tumor’s recurrence rate can be upwards of 40%. Doctors are desperate to find treatment modalities to reduce this high recurrence rate.
This is the tumor that, at the age of 18, changed Catarina’s life.
In the typical fashion of a busy high school graduate, Catarina was pushing through life at full throttle. She was in her first semester at Coe College in Iowa. She was majoring in political science and sociology. Law school was a consideration. Nothing was going to stop her…. not even those nagging headaches, the occasional dizzy spell, or annoying black spots that popped up in her vision. It was finally one night when fearing that she was having a stroke because half her face was going numb that she decided that a visit to the emergency room was warranted.
Only another teenage cancer patient can relate to the sense of isolation, fear, and doom that Catarina experienced on that day of her ER visit. She learned that the cerebrospinal fluid level in her brain was too high. It was causing increased pressure inside her head. This increased pressure was the cause of all her symptoms. Worse yet, there was a tumor in her head that was blocking the free flow of cerebrospinal fluid. She needed an emergency operation on her brain in order to decompress the dangerously high intracranial pressure. The tumor, later to found to be an ependymoma, needed to be resected.
Now, two years out from that horrible emergency room visit, Catarina’s scans are clean. After brain surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy, her scans show no residual or recurring cancer. She is a sophomore at Coe College. She continues to strive for that degree in political science and sociology. Law school is still a consideration. Despite all those doctors digging around in her head, she is on the dean’s list. The epitome of a LampStrong Hero, she is making the most out of her second chance at life.
A surprising common trait that seems to be constant in all LampStrong Heroes is their sense of positive outlook. When asked how she dealt with her sudden diagnosis, her treatment, and now her recovery, Catarina sanctions that it is all about maintaining a positive outlook. She is willing to accept that which she cannot control. She maintains trust in her doctors. Never has succumbing been an option. Her favorite musical is Annie because she knows that “the sun will come out tomorrow”.
Here is the time to define why Catarina Gomez is so unselfishly special and why she parallels Henrietta Lacks. First the reader needs to know a little about Ms. Lacks. In 1950 Henrietta was the unwitting source of cells from a tumor biopsied during her treatment of cervical cancer. Henrietta’s cancer was far advanced, and she succumbed to the disease. The cells obtained from her biopsy were found to be special in that they were cultured and found to grow quickly. As was common practice at the time, without her consent, her cells were cultured by George Otto Gey of Johns Hopkins Hospital. Dr. Gey created a cell line that eventually became known as the HeLa immortal cell line, a commonly used cell line that is used to this day in medical research. The ability to rapidly reproduce HeLa cells in the lab has led to many breakthroughs in biomedical research. Jonas Salk used HeLa cells in his development of the polio vaccine. HeLa cells are used in cancer and AIDS research. They are used for gene mapping. It is said that since 1950 as much as 50 million metric tons of HeLa cells have been grown leading to the development of 11,000 patents. Rebecca Skloot authored a book depicting Henrietta’s story titled “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks”.
At the tender age of 18, amid dealing with the reality of her own mortality, Catarina made a selfless commitment to help other patients like her. Her doctors came to her with a special proposition. Given that ependymoma relapse rates are so high, there is presently a national clinical trial open for ependymoma patients. It involves adding additional chemotherapy treatment to the patient’s regimen following the completion of surgery and radiation. This meant that Catarina would have to subject herself to additional short- and long-term treatment side effects. Her hair would fall out. She would be exhausted and weak. She would have nausea and vomiting. In an act of bravery, even though she could face later complications related to the chemotherapy, she agreed to enroll in the clinical trial.
When asked about her future goals, Catarina says that she wants to finish her poly sci and sociology studies. She wants to apply her college degree to making the world a better place. She wants to help people be kind to one another, respect each other, and treat each other with dignity.
This self-described “brown girl living in a white world” has already done that by her selfless actions. She is Matt Lampson’s Henrietta Lacks.