Not really knowing your family medical history can cause you cancer woes, oncologist says
Heredity and cancer are inexorably linked.
Even if you prefer denial.
Hidden facts can be destructive, Ross indicates, pointing to one of her young patients who joked about her Irish heritage but discovered, through testing for breast cancer gene mutations, that she carried an Ashkenazi Jewish mutation that could spell trouble.
It was learned that her French Jewish family, apparently fearing anti-Semitism during World War II, had converted to Catholicism and made Ireland their home.
Ross, author of "A Cancer in the Family: Take Control of Your Genetic Inheritance," points out in her article that "many illnesses…are at least partly hereditary. One recent study found that 33 percent of cancer diagnoses can be explained by genes."
She also notes that "only one-third of Americans have ever tried to collect their family medical histories from relatives" and that part of the problem "is the fault of the medical profession…physicians [may] devote just three minutes to asking family-history questions during a patient's first visit."
Another difficulty is that many "relatives might never have revealed that they were sick, particularly if they struggled with a disease that carries a stigma."
For example, she adds, "according to one study, 58 percent of psychiatrists said they wouldn't tell family and friends if they suffered from a mental illness."
Fear, ostracism and shame certainly can become obstacles to the truth.
Ross also cites patients who interpreted histories incorrectly, including one who "denied that he had a family history of cancer because, he said, nobody had died. Another suggested that her sister's breast cancer at age 38 was due to her divorce. One even told me her father had only 'a touch of melanoma.'"
In addition, language can be a barrier to understanding.
"It wasn't so long ago that tuberculosis was known as 'consumption' and epilepsy was 'falling sickness," Ross writes. "Strokes were 'apoplexy,' and 'bad blood' was code for syphilis."
Memory, too, can be faulty. Ross says that rather than factual it can be "a construction of what we think happened. Lung cancer may have, in fact, been colon cancer; ovarian cancer perhaps was cervical cancer."
Research into your family history, Ross indicates, is definitely worth the time invested. And The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention can be of assistance. So can the National Institutes of Health.
Both have online guides that might help you get started.
To learn about the links between heredity and breast cancer, particularly BRCA1 and BRCA2 gene mutations, you also could check out "Rollercoaster: How a man can survive his partner's breast cancer," a VitalityPress book I, Woody Weingarten, aimed at male caregivers.
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