Family – The Burden of Genetics (I)

When I think about family, I usually think of people. A moving, imperfect circle, individuals all coming together, fighting, loving, arguing, hugging. People hanging out at big events, related by a multitude of ties, some unbreakable, some so thin they disappear over the years.

I always saw my family as this group of people, some with whom I had great relations, some I barely ever spoke to. I had never defined family based on whether we shared any blood, any DNA. Whether someone had married into the family or was on the same branch of the family tree never mattered to me.

Until one day, when it became all that mattered.

I was told early on, the day after my diagnosis, that there were two potential causes for my cancer. One was that it was random. Faulty hormones, bad karma, a variety of factors that could contribute to my developing womb cancer at a ridiculously young age. The other explanation would be genetics. There could be, running in my family, a genetic condition that had until then remained undetected, and my cancer could be one of the many manifestations of this genetic mutation. The overwhelming majority of womb cancers are random, and happen in individuals who have no family history of cancer. But a small percentage are due to various genetic conditions, and these cancers tend to appear much earlier. Because I was completely out of the usual age range for womb cancer, I was a candidate for genetic testing. It would not change the treatment plan, or the outcome of this particular cancer. But it had the potential to change everything else.

I was referred to a genetics specialist on the very day of my diagnosis. At the time, I did not realise how much that weighed on my shoulders. I was told it would take months for me to get an appointment, and that it would only be the start of my journey into genetics – if I decided I wanted to get tested, after discussing it with the specialist. I agreed to speaking to the geneticist without even thinking about it. Since it was going to take months, it was better to get started early.

Pretty soon, I received a bunch of forms to fill in about my family, about where each branch of my family came from, our ethnic background. I then had to fill in separate forms about each of my first and second-degree relatives. Names, dates of birth and medical history of my parents, brothers, grand-parents, aunts and uncles. Date and cause of death, where applicable. Any medical history that could be relevant: cancers, unexplained medical conditions, etc.

It was an incredible, uncomfortable amount of work. I had to ask each of my parents to quiz members of their respective family. My mum’s family was straightforward. No cancer in the immediate family, and no trace of it for generations. It is actually quite unsettling to realise that I am the first in four generations to get cancer. That seems terribly unfair.

We hit a hurdle as soon as I started filling out the information about my dad’s side of the family. We know very little about his father, and his life after he left his family when my dad was just a toddler. My dad has always refused to look into it, to get in touch, to renew the ties before his father died, back in the early 90s. He could have had cancer, and we might not have known about it.

My dad also had to ask his elderly siblings, two of which are currently battling their own advanced cancers, about any genetic testing they might have undergone. It must have been terribly taxing. I have rarely been so grateful to have someone to delegate some of this work to.

We filled in the forms, using all the sections allocated and then more – the form only allowed for three siblings for each generation, and my parents both come from much larger families. I had to add a few extra pages of names and data, before sealing the envelope and sending it off to Oxford.

As I was doing this work, I also started looking more in depth into what a genetic condition could mean. I did the very thing that the nurse had asked me not to do during our first appointment, and I went on an endless search for answers on the Internet.

I read pages and pages of information about potential genetic conditions, thinking and overthinking anything I knew about my family. My aunt is battling breast cancer – there are several genetic mutations that can cause both breast and gynaecological cancers in some families. My uncle is fighting pancreatic cancer – although there are many factors that could have contributed to his specific cancer, it is also one of the cancers associated with Lynch syndrome, which causes a predisposition to a wide range of cancers, including womb and colon cancer.

Because of these cancers on my dad’s side of the family, and the unknown threat of his own father’s family history, I had somehow convinced myself that the likelihood of a family genetic condition was pretty high. Doctors had told me that my cancer was more likely to be random. But they had also told me before that the chances of me having cancer at my age were almost non-existent. When you are one in a million, how can you then trust that your cancer will follow the most common path?

A genetic condition like Lynch syndrome would have meant that, even if I beat this womb cancer, I was at a much higher risk of developing other cancers in the near future, if it had not started already. My life would be very different. I was scared. I was terrified. For months, I analysed every single thing happening in my body, convinced that it was the sign of another cancer growing somewhere else in my body. More than once, I asked myself if it really was worth undergoing treatment, if I knew cancer was going to be a very real threat in the future. If it was only a matter of time. I will be honest. There were days where the possibility of being riddled with genetics conditions made me think of giving up altogether.

The one happy thought I had was that, if I did have a genetic condition, I would never pass it on to any children. It is bleak, when your one ray of hope is that your hysterectomy means you will never pass on faulty genes.

By agreeing to speak to a geneticist, I had agreed to open the door to an ocean of possibilities, each scarier than the next. I agreed on the basis that it is better to know in advance what you are about to face. I have said it before, I hate surprises. Undergoing genetic testing is pretty much as close to finding out about your future as is possible in this day and age.

In early December, as I was coming to terms with the delay in my operation, I received a letter from the genetics clinic, telling me I had an appointment scheduled for Friday, 14th February 2020. Well. I was not going to have a hot date on Valentine’s Day anyway, so I might as well have an appointment with a geneticist.

It felt so distant, so far in the future that I pushed it to the back of my mind for a while. I focused on the task at hand for the next couple of weeks: getting the surgery done. Everything else could take a backseat. But the moment I saw my brothers again when they came to visit at Christmas, a new threat jumped into my mind.

If a genetic condition was to be discovered, it would not only affect me. It would affect them. It would affect my parents. They would have to get tested. I would be the one triggering a series of reactions I had not foreseen. Was I ready for this? Were they?

All of a sudden, the threat of genetics became unbearable, and the guilt, the guilt I felt at the idea of being the one throwing my family into disarray was undescribable. I could not do that to them. My existence was putting theirs in danger. My medical history could unravel their lives.

Spoiler alert – it did not. But the feelings were there, for months. And they deserve a blog post of their own.

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