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Fighting My Father’s Fate

Can I avoid my family history of hereditary disease?

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There are unsettling examples of a single gene’s ability to determine a person’s fate. The highly accurate and simple test for Huntington’s disease -- a rare but fatal neurological disorder -- can tell you if you have the lethal gene. The results can devastate a person’s life. 

But experts say that genes and genetic tests like this are rare. For most people with a history of hereditary disease, our fates aren’t inscribed in stone, or DNA.  Or if they are, we’re a ways off from being able to read that risk. The vast majority of genetic tests can’t predict your future. They can only tell you if you have an increased risk of disease, not whether you’ll get it. 

“Common conditions like heart disease and many types of cancer don’t have a single cause,” says Cathy Wicklund, MS, CGC, president of the National Society of Genetic Counselors. “Instead, they’re the result of complex combination of genetics, environment, and behavior.” A family history of disease is often just another risk factor, like not exercising or smoking. 

So people like me aren’t born with a genetic destiny, with a ticking time bomb. But we might be born into the world sitting atop a barrel of gunpowder. It’s often our choices that determine whether that fuse gets lit.

Myths About Family History and Hereditary Disease

Before you can honestly assess your genetic risks, you need to stop believing the myths. According to the genetic counselors I spoke with, people with a history of hereditary disease tend to be naïve, superstitious, and far too pessimistic when assessing their odds.

It sounds silly as I write it, but I’ve always assumed that because I’m similar to my father -- because my voice sounds like his, because I rest my chin on my hand in the same way he did -- I’d logically get his killer genes. Turns out I’m not alone.

“That’s a very common mistake,” says Zabel. “Of course you have some of your father’s genes. But that’s no indication of whether you inherited the ones that predisposed him to disease.”

People with a history of hereditary disease tend to dwell exclusively on the bad genes. Genetically, my mom’s side of the family looks pretty good. But I’ve always been so caught up in the drama of a lethal father-to-son inheritance that I forget that 50% of my genes are from her.

Then there’s the numerology. We tend to assume that our age at death is fated. “Sixty-four is going to be a really bad year for you,” Zabel predicts. “You’re going to be thinking, ‘Is this my year to go? No one else in my family has ever made it beyond this point.’” I know she’s right.

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