As offspring, we know that we are the products of our parents but where does their direct genetic influence end and our own expressions of biological self kick in? In my family of 8 (Mum, Dad and 6 kids) I was an anomaly – the first to manifest cancer. Furthermore, according to my family history, there doesn’t appear to be any genetic predisposition towards being struck by the disease, with only a few cases appearing across generations on both my father’s and mother’s sides. After my Dad developed bowel cancer 2 years ago at the tender age of 84 (which he successfully bridged without chemo or radio) and the hype of Angelina Jolie’s double mastectomy, I took my oncologist’s advice and underwent a genetics evaluation. Based on this preliminary investigation, the probability of my having and passing on the BRCA gene was considered to be minimal, along with my risk of developing bowel cancer. I breathed a sigh of relief.
I know that what I did inherit from my parents helped to get me through and beyond cancer – resilience, determination, courage, strength. From my Dad, I gained the added benefits of an open and inquiring mind and a “physician heal thyself” mentality. In his case, these traits have enabled him to successfully manage a range of potentially debilitating health concerns and are continuing to keep him well. An example and inspiration to all.
According to Bob Wright, an American adjunct Professor in Environmental Health, our genetics is but the body’s biological “hardware,” the key being epigenetics or the “software” that determines the expression of our genes (Hail, W., How Cancer Saved Me, p. 394). The prefix “epi” from the Greeks means, “over, outside of, around…[implying] features that are ‘on top of’ or ‘in addition to’ the traditional genetic basis for inheritance” (//en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Epigenetics). This “layering” means that DNA isn’t the sum of who or what we are. Other factors, such as diet and environment come into play. What’s more, in terms of cancer, since “there are far too few genes that are known to be implicated in [it] to account for the widespread occurrence of the disease…cancer is now recognised as both a genetic and epigenetic disease” (//www.nova.org.au/epigenetics).
The good news for those of us who have had cancer and those who fortunately haven’t is that epigenetics gives us back significant control over our health and wellbeing. According to Dr Veronique Desaulniers, “Epigenetic studies have proven time and again that gene expression can be turned off and on by proper nutrition and the lessening of the toxic load” (//thetruthaboutcancer.com/angelina-jolie-brca-gene/). In that light, our DNA is not our destiny since we do have influence over what we put into and on our bodies and the environment within which we live. We just need to use that influence to our advantage.