17 June 2013

How Genealogy Research Can Save Your Life

Before becoming a celebrity blogger I worked as a private detective (I suppose “celebrity” is a relative term here). I’d say that most people probably associate PIs with fedoras and pin-stripe suits, black and white movies, cynical ex-cops nursing a whiskey in their low-rent dives, varied political intrigues and automatics in shoulder-holsters. The reality is- people probably don’t think that’s what it’s about nowadays.

This is unfortunate, because private investigating is pretty much exactly like it’s portrayed in old movies and dime novels- I’ve become very good at dry, wry one-liners and wear a lot of pomade. Plus, I’m not sure if I ever returned to my dimly lit office on the wrong side of the tracks without some mysterious, leggy blonde dressed in black, “grieving” over her mysteriously dead, wealthy husband and packing a little pistol in her garter belt.

As this is the case, I never really thought of applying the processes of the PI biz to preventative health awareness (unless it was protecting my health from some punk hoodlum looking to give me a severe case of lead poisoning, see…). However, that was before the importance of understanding the risks posed by hereditary illnesses hit very close to home.

My experience with genealogy and health began with the loss of an aunt to ovarian cancer. My mother is a microbiologist and in the course of some research following her sister’s death ran across the BRCA1 and BRCA2 gene mutations. The BRCA mutation is passed down the matrilineal line and those affected are at a considerably higher risk of developing certain types of cancer. The greatest risk is to women- significantly increasing the chances of developing breast and/or ovarian cancer. It’s been the subject of increased popularity (“infamy” might be a better term) recently with Angelina Jolie’s decision to undergo a prophylactic double mastectomy after discovering that she had the BRCA mutation.

When my mom found out about the BRCA mutation, a practicable test still hadn’t been developed. She kept it in mind, however, and although she didn’t get preemptive surgeries, she made a point of getting check-ups more frequently than she would have otherwise. It was thanks to one of these check-ups that the ovarian cancer she eventually developed was caught at Stage III rather than Stage IV.

Stage III ovarian cancer is a bad diagnosis, no question, and her prognosis wasn’t great: a 20% chance she’d survive four years with the odds decreasing every year after. I’m proud and relieved to report, however, that my mom, due in no small part both to her BRCA-mutation awareness and being perhaps the toughest person I know, is now going strong in year ten and is looking forward to an approaching remission that will very likely last two years or more. Had she been less vigilant, undertaken fewer checkups and the cancer had been caught at stage IV, this would almost certainly be a very different account.

In general, one of the most effective preventative health measures is understanding the health history of your family. If you don’t have a fairly solid understanding of your familial health issues on both sides of your family- don’t be afraid to ask. People generally and understandably shy away from asking others, even family members, details of their medical histories. It’s been my experience, however, that if you explain the purpose of your inquiry, people are impressively forthcoming. It helps that you’re not necessarily prying into the particulars of someone’s current health situation but rather looking for a broader picture of causes of death and illness.

Obviously you should ask about and pay attention to the incidence of ailments like cancer; diabetes; a high prevalence of strokes and/or heart trouble often associated with high blood pressure, increased cholesterol, heart attacks occurring in younger family members, etc. It probably also goes without saying that especial scrutiny should be paid to clusters of disease. The BRCA mutation, for instance, leaves both men and women more susceptible to certain cancers. If there is an occurrence of breast and/or ovarian cancer (particularly on your mother’s side), accompanied by prostate and even breast cancer in the men, get tested for the BRCA. It might not be a bad plan to get tested if there’s even a single occurrence of those.

Don’t neglect to ask after the less well known hereditary disorders including: cystic fibrosis, sickle-cell anemia (if you’re black or have black ancestry), Down syndrome, Fragile X syndrome, hemophilia or other clotting disorders, hyper- or hypoglycemia, Familial combined hyperlipidemia and Familial hypercholesterolemia, any of the muscular dystrophy variations, ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease), Huntington’s disorder, and so on. Pay attention to which side of the family these genetic issues are occurring on as well. If one of those listed or another hereditary disease is revealed by your inquiries, research it to find out the likelihood it will be (or has been) passed down to your children. Look into preventative steps that can be taken to lessen or mitigate the risks.

In some cases, if the risk is sufficient, genetic predispositions can even influence whether or not you choose to have (or have more) kids. I’m friends with one couple that decided against having children because of shared genetic risk factors and have since happily adopted. While these articles can have the opposite of their intended effect: engendering dread and anxiety rather than encouraging education, finding this stuff out now can help you avoid a great deal of future pain.

As a closing note, though, after my mother’s diagnosis and the verification of the BRCA mutation I got tested and was found negative. It was a relief, although it’s not the sort of thing for which a positive test would have meant despair- just greater conscientiousness and a better excuse to incorporate more preventative life choices. Since then, I’ve also been more aware of my health in general while suffering from less free-floating anxiety about the state of my health. It’s a condition I highly recommend.


About the author:

Colter Brian is a former private investigator/photographer and now a freelance writer.  When he writes, he contributes to sites such as http://www.onlinesearches.com.  Some of Colter's hobbies include spending time in the outdoors and perfecting his pasta recipes for his toughest critics; namely his two children.

Editor’s Note: Recent Upfront with NGS post regarding Genealogy + Health are:

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