Recently a friend called me to extend condolences after the loss of a loved one. A remark he made stuck with me. "In light of the incidence of cancer in your family," he said, "have you gotten yourself checked out?"
Yes, both my brother and my mother had cancer, my brother's tumor affecting the cartilage in his hip, and my mother's affecting her breast. But there is no genetic test that can evaluate your general risk of getting cancer. Yes, with a family history of prostate cancer - my grandfather had prostate cancer and my dad's PSA level is above normal, PSA being the marker for enlargement or neoplasia of the male accessory organ of reproduction - I could conceivably worry about prostate problems. But so should the general population. In fact, half of men over 60 years of age have prostate cancer. But most such tumors are slow growing, do not reduce life expectancy and never invade surrounding tissues. And so these individuals often don't know they have cancer and die of something unrelated. Like heart disease. My PSA is normal and I don't eat any dairy. Since consumption of dairy is strongly associated with prostate cancer, there's nothing for me to stress out about, at least as far as cancer is concerned. And being stress-free is good for the heart. Because really, with heart disease on both sides of my family (I had a grandfather who died of a heart attack, his 4th, at the age of 52) I would be justified in worrying about my ticker.
But I'm hardly alone. I know women who practically pull out their hair worrying about breast cancer. And while it is true that 12 percent of women develop breast cancer sometime during their lives, cardiovascular diseases and stroke cause 1 in 3 women's deaths each year, killing almost one gal a minute. Over 40 million women in the U.S. are affected by cardiovascular diseases. That's 25% of female Americans, twice as many as will get breast cancer. And 90% of women have one or more risk factors for heart disease or stroke. Risk factors include high blood pressure and high cholesterol in addition to high blood sugar, overweight, and inactivity.
I on the other hand work out every day, eat a diet of almost exclusively unprocessed foods, don't smoke. And like I said, try not to stress. But there are a few genetic tests that can evaluate your risk of getting certain types of cancers. The BRCA mutation is one of these. You probably learned about the BRCA mutation when Angelina Jolie underwent a preventative double mastectomy back in 2013. Jolie had the mutation and lost her mother to reproductive cancer. Recently the Kardashians were featured getting themselves tested for the gene. They did not have the mutation, and so they got to keep their junk. But if you do have the BRCA mutation, should you cut off your woman parts? Here's a statistic that should give you pause. According to the most recent estimates, 55 to 65 percent of women who inherit a harmful BRCA1 mutation and around 45 percent of women who inherit a harmful BRCA2 mutation will develop breast cancer by age 70 years. This may seem like a lot, especially in the case of BRCA1. The question is, what about the majority (55 percent) of women with the BRCA2 mutation that don’t get cancer? I'd argue that the cancerless population owes their freedom from disease to a healthier lifestyle. Because lifestyle matters. Enter epigenes.
Epigenetics is the study of heritable changes in gene expression that do not involve changes to the underlying DNA sequence. Unlike your genetic code, which except in rare cases cannot be altered, and when altered usually gives rise to cancer, epigenetic alterations happen all the time. These changes are influenced by several factors including age, the environment, your lifestyle. For example, people whose dietary indiscretions cause them to gain a lot of fat in their life can then pass a predisposition to overweight onto their children, even in absence of the mysterious obesity gene.
Conversely, it would seem to follow that if you lead a healthy lifestyle rife with vigorous activity in nature and nutrient-dense foods, lots of love and affection and a good measure of service to your fellow humans, you not only fortify yourself but increase the fitness of the sperm and egg that will one day take over the planet. Call it your personal contribution to posterity.
So forget about genes and genetic testing and focus on adopting lifestyle changes that are wholesome for you and healthy for the planet. Because your genes are not your destiny. And remember not to stress! That's good advice for just about everything.