Reducing Your Genetic Fear Factor

Reducing Your Genetic Fear Factor

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111207HEALTH.jpgMany families describe different traits that appear to run in families (i.e., the Johnson nose or the Jones’ personality). Many of these have strong genetic influences that are passed on from generation to generation. Each one of us may know a family with a genetic disease that affects multiple family members such as cystic fibrosis or sickle cell disease.

But what about other health concerns? From cancer to ulcers to arthritis to emphysema — all of these can have strong genetic ties and therefore your family’s history can affect your personal risk. Probably the most well known example is breast cancer. While most cases are sporadic, occurring in that particular individual without a familial history, a minority is familial and may be seen in family members across the generations.

One in nine U.S. women will develop breast cancer in their lifetime. Most occur after the age of 50. However, for those unfortunate enough to develop breast cancer before the age of 50, familial traits may play a stronger influence. Typically, the earlier the onset, the more likely it is one of the familial forms of breast cancer. A woman with the genetic predisposition to breast cancer due to defects in either the BRCA1 or BRCA2 genes has nearly a 90 percent lifetime risk of developing breast cancer. Furthermore, the risk of ovarian cancer is also significantly increased as well as melanoma, pancreatic cancer and prostate cancer.

It may be hard to discuss health matters in your family, but it is important to discuss our health and well-being openly and honestly as there may be other family members at risk. For example, identifying a daughter of someone affected with one of the hereditary breast cancer syndromes may result in earlier screening and detection in the hopes of avoiding an advanced breast cancer. Some of those at highest risk may even choose to have the breasts removed to reduce their own personal risk.

Information about a medical condition is sometimes hard to share or very difficult to ask for. A genetics health professional such as a genetic counselor can help you identify risks in your family and help you have a plan for discussing such matters with your family. If you are concerned, seeking out a genetic counselor is as easy as using the Web site to locate one near you. The genetic counselor can prepare you by taking your family history.

Sometimes, more importantly, a genetic counselor can identify more details that you must gather in order to better define the risk for you or other family members. It is often important to know who in the family is affected with what disease, how that person is related to you, the disease they have, down to specific location and type, as well as age of onset. With regard to some of the hereditary breast cancers, suggestions of what questions to ask of your family members and what details can be obtained from Facing Our Risk of Cancer Empowered. The American Medical Association, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Center for Disease Control, National Society of Genetic Counselors and Genetic Alliance among many such agencies also provide information and questionnaires for you to ask family members for medical information and to construct a pedigree (family tree) just point your browser using search terms such as “family history tools” or “obtaining a family history.” And don’t forget to discuss with your doctor any concerns that you have about your health or your family history as it may save your life or the life of one of your family.

Model: Gwen Pietzuch, Oxford-based Breast Cancer Survivor and Usana Health Sciences Independent Rep.