We have all been to appointments and been asked hundreds of questions about family history. It is annoying and something that I didn’t pay much attention to until recently. History is used to know if you are at a greater likelihood of certain diseases such as heart disease, diabetes, and even some cancers. I want to talk specifically about knowing your family history of cancer.
At the very beginning of the IDC journey, I was asked about family history relating to cancer. I had to have conversations with both my parents to learn that, as it turns out, every one of my biological grandparents had cancer. All different types and all at different stages in their lives. Are they related? Does that make me more prone to getting it myself? I had so many questions.
The most recent bought with cancer my family faced was my maternal grandmother. Though she was never officially diagnosed, that I am aware of, we believe that she had and most likely died from breast cancer. I was upset for a long time that she had hit a lump and opted to never tell anyone because she didn’t want treatment forced on her. I battled internally with anger and thinking how selfish that was for those down the line genetically. I was able to let go of the anger and hurt, but it took time. Even sometime after she had passed. It is not something I have openly discussed, even with my mom. I have mentioned it at times and told her if she ever did that to me I would slap her. I hope that we have an understanding now!
Anyway, I get the reason she kept it a secret. Treatment is hard. She was ready to go home. She didn’t want the brutal fight. I respect that. What I didn’t respect at the time were the potential implications that would have on her daughters, grand-daughters, and great-grand-daughters. Had there been a definite known history of breast cancer I might have been screened at an earlier age. I did unofficially know and I could have said something to my doctors, but I didn’t. I do not blame her for my cancer. I do not blame her for me not getting a mammogram until now. That I somewhat blame on science. They said I was too young for cancer and didn’t need routine mammograms until 40.
I say all that to share what I have learned in the past two months about family history and genetics. The first appointment I had with my oncologist we discussed genetic testing. She agreed that due to my “young” age and a family history of cancers in the reproductive system it would be wise to be tested. The testing was simple. We worked with a genetic counselor to do a family tree. In that, we outlined everyone in my immediate family going back to my grandparents. This would include my grandparents, my parents, aunts and uncles, my siblings, and all our kids. She asked about known cancer for each person and we put that in their box on the tree. We then went and had a simple blood draw done. The test was looking at, I believe, 95 different genetic markers known to be associated with cancer. 95!
The results took a few weeks to come back. At that time we discussed with the counselor how very few come back positive. I may have my numbers all wrong, but I believe she said that only 19 percent of cancers are genetic. The rest are caused by environment or unknown reasons.
When the results came back they showed that I was negative for all genetic cancer markets. My cancer was not genetic. I was relieved. There are a lot of important people in my life and I was happy to know that I and, most likely, my siblings, did not carry genetic cancer genes. We cannot say whether my nieces and nephews do or do not because they will have very different DNA. We cannot even be 100 percent sure my brothers do not, because even though we share the same parents, their DNA is unique. But the likelihood they do is very small.
To sum it all up, my cancer is not genetic. All the family history of cancer is more than likely just a coincidence. We have no way of knowing for sure. All I can advise you to do is ask your family about the history of cancer in your family. If you feel there is a lot, or even if there is just one case, ask your doctor about genetic testing. It can be tricky to get insurance to cover the cost, but it might be worth an out-of-pocket expense to piece of mind.
The genetic counselor did say that people who are adopted or do not know their family history are actually easier to test because the leg work done before in gathering all the information is not needed. If you have no idea what your history is, go be tested. It may help provide answers.