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Running from your cancer family history

girl-running-away-clipart-frightened-man-running-clipartI recently came across a blog post by a friend of a friend. She was opening up about her recent diagnosis of cancer. The beginning of her blog was something along the lines of “I’ve been running from my family history of cancer for as long as I can remember. Knowing that all of these people in my family had been diagnosed, I just kept on waiting for the grim reaper to come and get me too. Now that I’ve been diagnosed, I guess I’m not running anymore…”

I’ve heard this sentiment time and time again, both from patients and from friends. People recognize that their family history of cancer plays a role in their own risk for cancer, and many people live with this shadow hanging over their heads. The waiting and the worrying, the fatalism of it all; the sentiment of ‘these people in my family died cancer, and I know I’m going to develop cancer too, and there’s nothing I’m going to do but sit, wait for it to happen, and try to put it out of my mind.’

I recognize that different people approach fears and anxieties in different ways, but this “wait and do nothing” approach drives me NUTS. If you are aware that you have a strong family history of cancer, there are many practical things that you can and should do, other than sticking your head in the sand. Some of these things might save your life.

  • Have regular annual visits with your primary doctor. This might be your primary care doctor (PCP) or family medicine doctor, or even gynecologist. Do not go to a doctor only once every 5 years when there is a problem. Tell your doctor if you have a family history of any medical issues. Routine preventive care can help you catch health problems before they become serious.
  • Engage in screening for the cancers that run in your family. Unfortunately, effective screening tests do not exist for certain cancers. However effective screening tests do exist for many other cancers, for example, breast cancer, colon cancer, and skin cancer, to name a few. Speak to your doctor (see #1) to find out if effective screening exists for the cancers in your family. The rule of thumb is that your cancer screening should begin 10 years earlier than the youngest case in your immediate family.
  • Stay away from tobacco. Stop smoking, and avoid second hand smoke. Smoking causes cancer. And for those who already may have a hereditary risk for cancer, smoking does not help you, my friend.
  • Consider meeting with a genetic counselor. A genetic counselor will review your family history and give you a sense if he or she thinks there may be a hereditary component to the cancer in your family. The genetic counselor will also discuss with you your genetic testing options. Finding out that you have a hereditary predisposition to cancer may provide you with a better plan for cancer screening, or risk reducing options, and will help identify other family members at risk of having the same issue. By engaging in genetic counseling, you are helping yourself and your relatives!

An example: If your mother, aunt, and brother all have been diagnosed with gastric cancer, you should be getting upper endoscopies annually, starting 10 years before the earliest cancer diagnosis. So you take my advice and you meet with a genetic counselor. The genetic counselor says that she thinks the cancer in your family may be caused by a rare hereditary cancer syndrome called Hereditary Diffuse Gastric Cancer. She recommends genetic testing for the CDH1 gene, and explains that if you in fact had a mutation in that gene, she would recommend that you speak with a GI specialist about having a prophylactic gastrectomy (removal of the stomach) since screening for gastric cancer has not been proven effective at identifying cancer at an early and treatable stage. ‘What???’ you say. ‘Remove my stomach? That sounds crazy! And so extreme!’

Perhaps, but this is how you continue to live a healthy life without the burden of stomach cancer looming.

Because in the end, you have two choices:

  • Run away from your family history and stick your head in the sand (not my favorite).
  • Turn around, face your fears, and address your cancer risk. To risk being redundant, that may be in the form of (1) finding a primary doctor and telling him or her about your family history, (2) asking your doctor to manage your screening regimen, (3) stepping up your screening regimen to be more frequent so that if you do develop cancer, you can catch it at an early and treatable stage, or (4) discussing other risk reducing strategies with your doctor to determine what makes most sense for you in light of your family history.

You do not need to die from cancer just because you have a family history of cancer. Your cancer risk exists, whether you chose to acknowledge it or not. Ignoring it does not actually make it disappear. It just takes away your ability to take any proactive steps to maximize your health and the health of your family.

Lessons Learned from a Patient

As a genetic counselor in the Division of Reproductive Genetics, it is not very often that I see a male patient. This past week, however, I had the honor of seeing a man for cancer genetic counseling. I consider it an honor because this man’s character was so genuine and the feelings he expressed to me were so raw and from the heart, that I walked out of our session with a lot of positivity about life and about what family means to me.

My patient was a 61 year old man who was recently diagnosed with breast cancer. He came to see me because men who carry a BRCA mutation have about a 10% chance of developing breast cancer and his doctor thought BRCA testing may be warranted. Immediately following his diagnosis, he called his daughter (a 34 year old mother of two small children) to tell her the news.  In a panic, she visited her gynecologist who found a small lump and diagnosed her with stage 1 breast cancer. She is currently being treated and is expected to have a good prognosis. When recounting his story, my patient said to me, “I am so thankful to God that I have cancer. If I wouldn’t have found my cancer, my daughter would never have checked and she would have left behind a 4 year old and a 1 year old. I am so lucky.”

Lucky to have cancer?  I have never heard that one before. But those words struck me.  I know it was not his decision to develop cancer, but when he was dealt those cards, he coped quite nicely. This man was able to reflect on the one positive of his horrific situation.  In life, we are handed the short end of the stick from time to time-but we must stay optimistic and look however hard we need to find that glimmer of hope and positivity. I think that I told everyone I have seen since then about my favorite patient. If only we could all be that selfless…

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