A couple days ago, my dad and I met with a geneticist to discuss our genes and cancer and fun things like that. I know very little about genetics and DNA (and biology, for that matter), so I find it really fascinating to learn about how complex human systems are, and how much new information is being discovered every day.
Experts say that most incidents of breast cancer are not hereditary, and are due to various risk factors (such as radiation exposure, obesity, alcohol intake, etc.). But a portion of breast cancer cases are due to a genetic predisposition. You may have heard of the well-known BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes (as made popular by Ms. Angelina Jolie), which greatly increase the risk of having breast and ovarian cancers. But from meeting with the geneticist, I have learned that there are in fact a whack of other genes that may predispose you to a whole array of cancers.
Hereditary cancers are often suspected if a person was diagnosed at a young age (check), diagnosed with a rare form of cancer for their population (28 year old with breast cancer – check; adult male with breast cancer – check), and if related cancers are present in multiple generations (check). So as you see, there is good reason to wonder if my and/or my father’s cancer was the result of a faulty gene. It could just be completely random, and a huge coincidence, but deep down, I really don’t believe that. I have met so many people who have a very high incidence of cancer within their families, despite being healthy and doing everything “right” to avoid getting cancer. It’s obviously a lot more complicated than we realize.
The geneticist asked us if we would like to undergo testing of 21 genes that have been identified to increase cancer risk. Some of them increase your risk of certain cancers by a great deal, and others more moderately. The types of cancers associated with these genes include breast, ovarian, colon, and a bunch more. When providing me with an example, the geneticist mentioned the gene that increases risk of stomach cancer, and if positive, the possibility of removing the stomach. Um, HOLD IT RIGHT THERE, DOC. There’s obviously no way in hell I would give up my stomach, since doing that would greatly put a damper on my favourite activity: EATING. So let’s hope that bleak illustration does not ever become a reality. I’ll take a pass on that one, thank you.
Genetic testing can be very tricky psychologically, and it’s not for everyone. Some people don’t want to know what terrible things might be lurking around the corner. It can be very unnerving to have that information. But on the flip-side, it can also be reassuring — to know that you didn’t do anything to “cause” your cancer, and to know that there are steps you can take to lower your chances of cancer in the future.
I believe that knowledge is power, and as you might have figured out by now, I am an information-seeker and am constantly looking for answers to all of life’s questions. So for me, it was a no-brainer to partake in the genetic testing, and my dad felt the same as well. We signed some forms and gave some blood and put them in a fancy box, and now we wait (likely for several months) to hear the results. Since this testing currently is not available in Canada, the government needs to be petitioned to cover the cost of the test at a lab in the States. The doctors are handing all of that, but if it does not get approved, I’ll obviously step in and make a scene and make sure it goes through. You don’t want to mess with a feisty cancer blogger, I’ll tell ya that much.
Many of these genes were only recently discovered and not that many people have undergone testing. So we’re kind of like pioneers. Or something.
Obviously it is terrifying to think of any of these genes coming back positive, and what that might mean for me and for my family. But I also can’t help but be curious about what is going on in my own body. I will always be seeking out more answers, wanting to know the good and the bad, and everything in between.
But for right now, all I can do is wait, and hope. And in the meantime, I’m going to enjoy having my health, my life… and my stomach.