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Season 7 | Episode 4

Famous Tumors

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HeLa cells treated with a microtubule stabilizing drug, paclitaxel. Stained for DNA (blue), tubulin (green) and actin (red). HeLa cells treated with a microtubule stabilizing drug, paclitaxel. Stained for DNA (blue), tubulin (green) and actin (red). (Anne Martinez, CEA Grenoble/ iRTSV, France / GE Healthcare/flickr/CC-BY-2.0)

In this hour of Radiolab: an unflinching look at the good, bad, and ugly side of tumors.

Say hello to the growth that killed Ulysses S. Grant, meet Tasmanian Devils battling contagious tumors, and get to know the woman whose cancer cells changed modern medicine.


Christo Baars, Orrin Devinsky, Dr. Stanley Gartler, Dr. George Gey, Carlo Maley, Dr. Adrianne Noe, Anne-Marie Pearse, David Quammen, Mark Salzman, Rebecca Skloot and Brian Spatola

Devil Tumors

To start, Robert tries to touch--literally touch--the tumor that killed President Ulysses S. Grant. But will its keepers (Dr. Adrianne Noe and Brian Spatola) let him?

Next, writer David Quammen explains an unsettling discovery in Tasmania. When wildlife photographer Christo Baars noticed strange ...

Comments [9]

Magic Tumors

Can a tumor ever be a source of good? Neurologist Dr. Orrin Devinsky thinks so. He recalls the true story of a man, his tumor, and a euphoric reaction to safety pins. Next, Mark Salzman reads from his novel Lying Awake. When a nun develops a brain tumor, ...

Comments [7]

Henrietta's Tumor

We end with the extraordinary story of Henrietta Lacks. Though she died of cervical cancer in 1951, she unknowingly held the key to unlocking medical advancements (from polio vaccines to chemotherapy drugs) in her tumor cells. After taking a biopsy of Henrietta's cervical cancer, researcher Dr. George Gey and his ...

Comments [45]

Comments [71]

Joseph from DirtBall

There is a paraphrased quote from magic tumor segment that we dont get to hear. The writters Name was hard to pronounce. Who are they quoting at the end of magic tumors? Great podcast btw.

Jun. 03 2017 05:12 PM
Adam from MA

Fun fact: President Grants birth name is Hiram Ulysses Grant. When he was accepted to West Point they person who created his records accidentally transcribed his mother's maiden name, Simpson, as Grant's middle name and then his middle name as his first name. Somehow his first name was omitted. Grant never corrected the error and went by Ulysses from that point on because his old initials spelled out H.U.G. and he didn't want to be teased about it.

Jun. 01 2017 10:32 PM
Sean from WA

The song at the end with the piano and slide guitar is called Onora's kid by Loren Connors.

Aug. 23 2015 07:12 AM
pbf from the midwest

So interesting how this is "Henrietta's" tumor, and you repeatedly refer to her as "Henrietta." You don't refer to other people by their first names. Just because Ms. Lacks' cells are all over the place doesn't mean that you know her in any way. Please show proper respect and call her Ms. Lacks. It's not lost on me that the only person you keep referring to by her first name in this episode is a black woman. (Which I am not, by the way.)

Mar. 09 2015 03:06 AM
Fred G.

Tumor show was mind blowing public radio at the highest level. Great work. The Henrietta Lax segment was a spiritual experience for me. Thank you all so much.

Mar. 08 2015 09:06 PM

The music was way too loud and distracting! Please, trust the material... you don't need to pump up the drama!

Mar. 07 2015 01:00 PM
Gordon from NorCal

What is up with the music in this episode? It is terrible - competing with the voices to the point of distraction. There were a few points in the podcast that were almost unlistenable.

Mar. 04 2015 07:50 PM

Hey Seth, I think that sound clip was also on the the movie, "Rivers and Tides" by Andy Goldsworthy.

Sep. 03 2013 09:10 PM

to respond to the comment saying HeLa cells were already diseased, they are not diseased they are simply malignant and will not stop dividing since they are cancerous. Other than that there is nothing "diseased" about them. Listened to this story while I was filling out an assignment sheet because we are reading this in school.(Yes im in school). It was cool to hear their voices while reading this book, however it did say that Deborah died which was a spoiler for lack of a better word since it is a real person not a fictional character.

Mar. 30 2013 06:10 PM

What is the brief clip of a song around 9:27? I recognize it and its driving me crazy.

Feb. 26 2013 03:27 PM
L W Calhoun from Atlanta

If researchers need living human tissue for testing, why are they using diseased tissue? Doesn't that defeat the purpose ?

Diseased tissue is already sick. Don't they need healthy tissue ?

Nov. 06 2012 05:03 PM
Jeff "Dr Chordate" Moran

Hi: As Dr Chordate, I write a lot of songs about a wide range of scientific topics, including one about Henrietta Lacks. A recording of that song can be heard here:
(or search for "Dr Chordate" on YouTube or MySpaceMusic).

Thanks for your interesting program on tumors.

Nov. 04 2012 08:58 AM
Jim from Massahusetts

I am an epileptic who listened to your latest show with interest. For 20 years I was completely stable taking dilantin which is a drug developed in the 1960's. My neurologist moved on to a research job, and he recommended a well intentioned but unpracticed neurologist at a Harvard teaching hospital in Boston. She recommended a switch of medications to a new more modern one called keppra which was supposed to work like dilantin without any of the side effects. It was made to sound like a miracle drug. But. It did not work. I had a couple of seizures, one of which I am lucky to have survived, a few inches this way or that and gonzo, broken neck. The interesting thing about keppra was that taking it was like being Marcel Proust on acid. An aura would consist of a flash of an image, a smell or any sensory impression. Then, and this is a metaphor, it was as if this flash was a light turning on in my mind. Now a mixed metaphor. A a door would open onto a brightly lighted hall that was the history of that flash back leading back to its origin. The hallway led back to a closed door which was where that flash got meaning and became associated with a feeling or emotion or with the past. It was like a turbo charged remembrance of things past. Instead of a madeleine dipped in tea unlocking an involuntary memory associated with that impression, this was like the 4th of July fireworks. Now if you were an introverted researcher, you could use this experience to study the architecture of memory and meaning and the roots of spirituality. However while interesting, it was not a way to live. This doctor did other things wrong, and in fact every recommendation she made was wrong. So on to a new MD and back on a treacherous path to the original drug, after 2 years of my life wasted, except for the verification that everything has an origin.

Nov. 04 2012 08:32 AM

Tina - Yes and some cultures are more "right-lobed" than others. Jill still talks/writes about "movin' to the right" interesting, eh?

It's an outrage to me that all this time has passed in the story before we find out that Henrietta Lack's cells were taken and exploited without her permission.

Nov. 03 2012 12:49 PM

Must you be so annoying? Making light of tumors to someone who has more of them than is known is in such poor taste - and cancer is of course interesting BECAUSE IT'S AN EPIDEMIC!!!! GET SOME MANNERS!!!! (Also ditto to the commenter who dislikes the OTT jarring soundscape.) This is not funny!!! YOU should all be required to take sensitivity training.

Nov. 03 2012 12:16 PM
rima from Port Townsend WA

Listening to your show on tumors, and spiritual experiences associated, I think you would be interested in reading the book "My Stroke of Insight," by Jill Bolte Taylor. Also available, a TED talk by Taylor on youtube.

Nov. 02 2012 10:41 PM
Neil Greenspan from Cleveland, OH

Your presentation of natural selection in the context of tumor evolution is profoundly misguided. While the genetic variation that precedes selection is generated randomly, where "randomly" has a technical definition, the essence of selection is non-randomness.

Nov. 02 2012 07:31 PM
Wil Davis from Nashua, NH

You did it again! Another programme with interesting content totally trashed by the incessant and lousy overused musak & dreadful sound-effects, "shock", "horror", "gasp of surprise" reactions from your interviewees, your producer must have only recently graduated; the programme was so clunky and sounded as if it was put together by an intern. "CLICK!" - Wil Davis

Nov. 02 2012 02:26 PM
Dan from CT

Does Robert like Jad?

Dec. 14 2011 05:29 PM
Lynda Joy from Chicago, IL

Love the Beirut playing at the end of 'Devil Tumors'. Also a really fascinating episode, considering that cancer cells adapt and evolve so quickly. I think we have to understand more about the immune system and how it responds to disease.

Sep. 07 2011 11:54 AM

A little surprised about the reaction to the "what did she look like" question. I didn't think it offensive. I admit, with the debt humanity owes this woman I was wondering as well, wanting to know more about the person. I don't think it derogatory in any way. It was purely a desire to know this person just a little bit better - and certainly had nothing to do with race. I appreciate others seem to feel differently but I really don't think the question in any way implied a disrespect.

Sep. 06 2011 11:04 PM
Ben Gold

This is still my favorite episode of Radiolab. Every episode is amazing, but this is what I tell people to listen to first when I tell them about Radiolab.

Aug. 24 2011 08:35 PM

Great episode. I think Guy named the cell culture HELA after HEnrietta LAcks.

Jul. 30 2011 02:19 PM
Taylor from Orange, CA


Mar. 08 2011 05:16 PM

Another great one, but don't eat while listening....the feta cheese tumor description didn't go well with my burrito. LOL

Feb. 03 2011 08:50 PM

Really have to thank you guys for this one. Recently lost my dad to lung cancer and this was a very fun and informative way to understand what happened to him.

Jan. 13 2011 08:00 PM
Wendy from Australia

Hey guys, just want to thank you for this and all your RadioLab podcasts, which I stumbled across last month. Love the choice of topics and content so far - getting stuck in traffic is now enjoyable. Thanks again and keep up the good work.

Dec. 17 2010 08:29 PM
logicalnot from Culver City, CA

Just found this incredible article today (2010_12_07__00h26) about a little girl and an incredible tumor:

"A desperate African schoolgirl has been saved by kind-hearted doctors after they removed a rugby ball sized tumour which covered more than half her face. Grateful Regina Addae, 13, was born with a normal face but at two weeks old her parents noticed a swelling on her left cheek which ”grew and grew and grew”. The huge tumour – which weighed 1.5lbs – hung over her left eye, causing it to weep at least 50ml of blood every day – leaving the teen dangerously anaemic."

More here:

Dec. 07 2010 03:27 AM
Dr. Blue from Los Angeles

I am a cancer researcher and never questioned where our cultured cell lines are coming from. Now I look at them with different eyes knowing that someone went through a lot of pain to make the research possible that saves lives. And I thank Dr. Gey for his self-less contribution to science without thinking about a profit. We need more of that.
Excellent inspiring piece!

Oct. 12 2010 11:40 PM
Leah from Washington, DC

This was an excellent program, however, I felt that it was totally tacky to ask what Ms. Lacks "corpse" looked like. Hasn't this poor woman and her family suffered enough indignities. One wonders if that insensitive question would have been asked if the Ms. Lack had been a white woman?

Oct. 05 2010 08:23 AM
Matt Albright from Norfolk, VA

This is my favorite webcast and found this episode to be extremely educational. With that said, I feel as though you lampooned Dr. Howard Jones, the gynecologist who first discovered Henretta’s tumor. Dr. Jones is one of the smartest men I have ever had the privilege to know. He, and along with his wife, Dr. Georgeanna Seeger Jones were the pioneers of in-vitro fertilization in the United States. The Jones Institute, located in Norfolk, VA helped thousands of couples conceive where other procedures had failed. Dr. Jones turns 100 years old in the coming months and still comes into the office daily. Although he no longer sees patients, he is still a highly sought after lecturer. He is also one of the finest gentlemen you would ever meet. Please keep these things in mind when editing your programming.

Sep. 22 2010 12:44 AM

This episode scared the crap out of me and I couldn't sleep for days afterwards. I wouldn't recommend it if you scare easily.

Sep. 13 2010 05:22 PM
TOMMY from Teton Idaho

I'd Like to read a thirty year, In the ward. Story.. I know a few, people who wan't ME to tell at least. 1 desen't story about are real. earned been there done that story..and forth to with haven't heard one just a bunch of nuts No comment after thirty long years bla... Tommy....

Sep. 09 2010 10:25 PM

The story reports that there is are no other examples of taking something from someone’s body and keeping it living…” This is completely false.

Donations of bone marrow, bone, skin and even blood are examples of cells that continue living outside your body. An even more dramatic example is organ transplantation.

Jun. 22 2010 12:38 PM

Rebecca mentions that there is “… no other example of some way you you can take something from someone’s body and have it keep living…” This is completely false.

Donations of bone marrow, bone, skin and even blood are examples of cells that continue living outside your body. An even more dramatic example is organ transplantation.

Jun. 22 2010 12:37 PM

I am listening to the Totally Tumors episode today (6/20) on KJZZ in Phoenix AZ. While the radio show is excellent, I am distressed by one element of the story was handled. When the woman who obtained Henrietta Lack's 2nd cancer sample after her death, the interviewer asked her "what did she look like?". How is this relevant or appropriate? What a tacky question! How would the hosts feel about having someone describe their dead family members appearance over the radio?

Because her cells were taken without her knowledge or consent, and because of the racial issues in this story, I think a little more sensitivity would be appropriate. I'm not African American, by the way, but feel very strongly about this.

Jun. 20 2010 06:58 PM
Charles Dillingham

If anyone knows the name and/or artists of the song at 33:00 to 34:00, please let us know. Absolutely beautiful, and it makes me feel like I am at some home that I have forgotten. Thank you for your help!

Jun. 14 2010 12:14 AM

I wish I knew the name of the song they were playing at about 33:30 to 34 minutes, right after the part where they finish talking about Dostoevsky's epilepsy. It's that atmospheric, jazzy guitar piece.

Jun. 08 2010 10:38 PM

Perhaps RadioLab should get a clue and list the music they use in these episodes. Is there a legal issue to do so? Maybe just a good idea? Many of us would like to know the music used apparently and I would think the artist's who created the music would appreciate it. It's their music after all, isn't it? It's easy to do, This American Life finally started to list the music used. RadioLab, please give a list of the music used.

Jun. 05 2010 07:54 AM

As long as we're identifying music, what was the song at the end of the show?

Jun. 03 2010 12:39 AM

Good luck Lulu with everything you do! RadioLab listeners will miss you!

Jun. 01 2010 05:27 PM
Brently MD

Cancer is a new life form. Tumors have the ability of eternal life. We as humans have been asking for immortality, to be young forever, to be remembered eternally. Is it possible we are This seems like such a cosmic joke. We are getting our immortality, but it is killing us. The flesh needs to die for us to live. God is a clown. And the afterlife is the funniest punch line you've never heard yet.

May. 30 2010 01:17 PM

This was a wonderful show that kept me enraptured. Thanks!

May. 29 2010 04:40 PM

I love Radio Lab -- thank you so much for such quality shows.

May. 28 2010 10:52 PM

Very interesting show, but I found it misleading when the show proclaimed one theory of how tumors form (ie. survival of the fittest, where the fastest growing tumor survives) as fact.

However, there are a number of theories for tumor formation, and in fact, most tumors are a mixed population (heterogenious), NOT clones (got that wrong on my exam!). And there is a growing belief that tumors arise from cancer stem cells, in which the *real* cells that cause tumors are *slow* growing cells (which is how they survive cancer treatments that target the rapidly dividing cells).

Tumors are MUCH more complicated than the show made them out to be!

May. 28 2010 01:24 PM

Amazing episode - Inspired and appreciative of Henrietta Lacks' contribution to several faceless survivors and their scientist discoverers.
Lulu Miller- Good Luck in all your endevours!

May. 28 2010 10:53 AM

Not as narrative an episode as in the past. This one didn't excite me or keep glued to my headphones. Something missing.
I'm a die hard fan nonetheless!

May. 27 2010 10:29 AM

I once had a tumor (that I) named Steve.
Steve, the spindle-cell neoplasm.

May. 27 2010 12:32 AM

FRACTALS! You didn't make the connection that the Tasmanian Devils' behavior is identical to the tumor cells competing within them: biting each other, competing for food, etc. Listen back to that passage, and what Jad did with the music, and it's hard not to feel a fractal model.

May. 26 2010 04:49 AM

The song at ~39 minutes is "Fratres for Cello and Piano" by Estonian composer Arvo Part.

May. 25 2010 08:10 PM

What's the song that starts in at ~39 minutes?

May. 24 2010 03:15 PM

I have to make a comment the idea that tumors evolve to be more malignant, tumors evolve lots of phenotypes, but the more aggressive cells are SELECTED because they are the ones that outgrow all the others or can grow in other places. There are tumors that spontaneously regress and ones that are not aggressive, because the mutations or alterations that allow them to progress do not occur.
Also, an example of cells living on would be any kinds of transplants--especially bone marrow transplants where a few stem cells reproduce all the blood cells of the recipient for their lifetimes.
other than that, a great show.

May. 24 2010 11:33 AM

This was an amazing show! I was quick to share the story with my friends and family the first chanch I got..!

May. 23 2010 10:31 PM

I was totally unprepared for that explosion of gospel.

May. 23 2010 05:11 PM

Eddie Lin said: "This one was tough to listen to but brilliant nonetheless."

Whenever I hear/see the word "tumor" I think about this horrid picture I saw in WIRED magazine of a teratoma with a human tooth growing out of it. *shudder* So, I'm filled with trepidation about listening; but Radiolab is so awesome, I'll have to work around my fear of being grossed out.

May. 21 2010 09:19 PM

I was going to ask about the music at 20:50, but it looks like I've been beat to the punch! Love Beirut's trumpets. Thanks!

May. 21 2010 09:54 AM

@chrisp The song at 20:54 is "The Shrew" (March of the Zapotec) by Beirut:

May. 21 2010 01:32 AM

For those who listened to the podcast, does anyone know the name of the song at 20:54?

May. 20 2010 02:43 PM

"Left-Handed Toons" made a web comic just recently that seems apropos to this Radiolab episode: "Alternate Movie Casting" :-D

May. 19 2010 11:42 PM

Guys check out Jill Bolte Taylor's TED talk where she takes you through how her brain shut down as she experienced a stroke. It sounds very much like the experience of the nun you covered in this story. Basically the right brain (serial processor) does seem to have the ability to give you that 'connected to god' feeling.

May. 19 2010 08:40 PM
M. Case

Rebecca mentions that there is “… no other example of some way you you can take something from someone’s body and have it keep living…” however this happens daily. Childbirth is a prime example of an extremely common way in which tissue, created by our bodies, is then removed and continues to grow and live. This, of course, would probably not be comforting to the family – thinking that their mother’s “child” was then subjected to scientific testing – however, this could have been a starting point to explain it to the family as a much more naturally occurring process.

May. 19 2010 07:26 PM

It sounds like tumors start to act like single celled organisms after a while.

Or more like, they start to act on their own.

May. 19 2010 07:23 PM

The description of the nun's religious moment due to her brain tumor reminded me of this lecture. This is a talk given by a neurologist about what she learned about the brain by having a stroke.

May. 19 2010 06:14 PM

My heart sunk when you said that even after chemo, the cancer cells will return. My dad was just proclaimed to be cancer free after many many rounds of chemo. I was living in celebration and comfort about this until I heard your show this morning. Now I feel like we're just waiting for the cells to start all over again. Unsettling.

May. 19 2010 10:40 AM

I first came across the story of HeLa in 1985 in a book called "A Conspiracy of Cells". The story was so bizarre I thought the book was a hoax. Thanks for clearing this up for me!

Anyway, another fine show. You folks always come up with an entertaining and informative radio program - one of the best things public radio has to offer. I find myself looking forward to each new podcast.

This is unsettling because I am going to have to start giving you money.

May. 19 2010 03:36 AM
Eddie Lin

This one was tough to listen to but brilliant nonetheless. Thanks, guys.

May. 19 2010 02:55 AM

The Covenant

When the Scientist took
the cancer from Henrietta Lacks
Did he make a covenant unto her?

Did he promise that her offspring
would be more numerous
than grains of sand?

Or that these descendants would
one day outnumber the
stars in the heavens?

Or, was this contract assumed,
the rational expectation of
independent agents operating
in equilibrium?

One doesn't find Reason in a
burning bush,
Or in broken tablets handed
down from high.

The test tube is sterile
and the lab books are only filled
with hypothesis, procedure,
measurement, and outcome.

But miracles can be found
in the cold, metallic air
surrounding Henrietta's immortality.

May. 18 2010 09:45 PM

Rebecca mentions that there is "... no other example of some way you you can take something from someone's body and have it keep living..." however this happens daily. Childbirth is a prime example of an extremely common way in which tissue, created by our bodies, is then removed and continues to grow and live. This, of course, would probably not be comforting to the family - thinking that their mother's "child" was then subjected to scientific testing - however, this could have been a starting point to explain it to the family as a much more naturally occurring process.

Just my two cents :)

Thank you SO MUCH for the show, guys - I can't tell you how much I appreciate it.

May. 18 2010 07:45 PM
Adam Lawson

I believe there was a small mistake made by David Quammen during this interview. He posits that canine venereal transmissible tumors are the "oldest continuous animal cell line on earth." I think he meant to say "mammalian" cell line as he has said in other places (e360 at Yale, for instance). There are animals--most notably rotifers in the Bdelloid class--that have been reproducing exclusively asexually for millions of years.

In either case, he's making the argument that this is one single parasite that exists over many individuals. This organism fails some important tests for being a mammel. Or for that matter, an animal.

Very good show, though!

May. 18 2010 12:02 PM

As a grad student, I've always wondered about the origin of HeLa cells and was given a perfunctory explanation of their origin. It was amazing to find out their origin in the New York Times and on Radiolab

May. 18 2010 09:16 AM

I think Robert is on to something with the Totally Tumors title. Gotta admit it grabs you more than Famous Tumors. ;-)

I'm curious about the ideas of "eternal life" for cells from long dead original owners. The Tazmanian Devils, the perhaps two millenia old canine cancer, and HeLa really make you reconsider your understanding of cancer, as a disease and possibly as new life itself. I think I may have to get Rebecca Skloot's book now!

The Magic Tumors segment intrigued me the most. When I was younger I wished to have a brain tumor like John Travolta's in Phenomenon (conveniently ignoring the side-effects). I think the stories about the safety-pin trigger and the nun's spiritual communion really bring back that sense of wonder.

It's as if these deadly brain tumors make you into a tragic hero, blessed with something of singular uniqueness yet cursed by the consequences.

May. 18 2010 12:05 AM

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