It’s in the genes

This weekend I was filing paperwork when I stumbled upon a lovely read from the Stanford Cancer Genetics Center. Before I bore you with the details about my genes, I’ll pose the questions to you that struck me when the science wizards presented my mom’s DNA analysis.

What would you do if someone told you that you had an 83 percent chance of winning the lottery? (This is a fun one. Discuss amongst, erm, yourself).

What would you do if someone told you that you had an 83 percent chance of getting cancer? (This is a not so fun stuff. Go ahead, pour yourself a cocktail).

If I was told I had an 83 percent chance of winning the lottery, I’m sure I’d wait a whole six hours before quitting my job. At the final hour, I’d think better of it, but I’m sure I’d block off my afternoon in search of a remote, dog-friendly tropical island that I could rent for a month. And, of course, I’d donate to LIVESTRONG, donating whatever amount necessary to cure cancer, which would certainly mean I’d get to meet Lance.

As for being told you have an 83 percent chance of getting cancer, I’d shut down, freak out, and once I processed the information, I’d resolve to make every minute count. And, after hearing my mom’s genetics report, this is exactly what I did. (Hello, Kilimanjaro, I didn’t know it in August of 2005, but now it all makes sense!)

It’s important to clarify that the Stanford Cancer Genetics Center can’t confirm that I have an 83 percent chance of getting cancer. However, after you read the report, taking the over vs. the under is a pretty safe bet.  Let me explain.

My mom’s genetic tests showed no harmful mutations in her BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes, which, according to a bunch of way smart doctors and scientists, are tumor suppressors (I’ll have to take their word for it). Mutations in these genes have been linked to hereditary breast and ovarian cancer. Now, ordinarily, I would do what I always do when I score a victory in the game of life — I’d shout “YAHTZEE!” loudly. After all, this is most certainly good news.  According to geneticists, the absence of mutated BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes means I have *only* a 33 percent chance of getting cancer.

The bad news is that geneticists say my family history suggests I have a  yet-to-be-discovered gene.  They say “a genetic predisposition is still very likely to exist.”  And, if that’s the case,  my chances of getting breast cancer increase by 50 percent. Now, I’m no mathlete, but if you run the numbers, 33 percent plus 50 percent puts my odds of getting cancer at 83 percent.

They say a genetic predisposition is “very likely” because I have quite a few of the characteristics associated with the known “breast cancer” genes.  According to the Stanford Cancer Center, these include:

  • You or two close relatives had breast cancer diagnosed at age 50 or younger. (Check. My mom was 44. My grandmother was diagnosed at 46 and died at 49).
  • You or a close relative had bilateral breast cancer (cancer in both breasts), first diagnosed at age 50 or younger. (Yup. Mom and grandmother).
  • Two or more cancers in a single individual. (Check. My mom had breast cancer three times and the first and second occurrences were two totally different kinds).
  • An increased incidence of tumors of other specific organs, such as the prostate (Yup. My uncle and a few of her maternal uncles).

Needless to say, re-reading my mom’s DNA analysis was sobering.  And while stats are based on averages and don’t tell the individual stories of people who deviate from that, this analysis gives me even greater motivation to LIVESTRONG every day.


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