Wednesday, July 15, 2009

To Test or Not To Test

I have read a lot about genetic testing. I don't know what I would do if a doctor ever presents the idea. Until today, I never knew anyone else faced with the decision.

My college roommate called this morning practically hysterical. She babbled on about a mutual college friend whose brother and his 14-year-old daughter were both recently diagnosed with colon cancer. This caused my to skip a breath. It wasn't just the idea that a 14-year-old had colon cancer. It was the thread this news extended.

This news follows our friend's battle with ovarian cancer and her sister's death earlier this year from colon cancer. Her mother battled several types of cancer before passing many years ago. The most devastating news followed. The oncologist suggested the family had a genetic pre-disposition for colon cancer. The brother's children were genetically tested for colon cancer and all three carry the gene. Many years ago our friend had an infant who died at about nine months. At the time it was called Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. Today, for the first time, we wondered out loud if it was really undiagnosed cancer.

What I cannot stop thinking of now is what do they do with the news? This is the dilemma that genetic testing creates, isn't it? Yes, they now know to be careful and test more often. They also know that no one in the family has ever survived cancer for more than a few years.

I cannot stop thinking about the brother's wife. A few weeks ago, she was living with her true love and three children. I don't know them well, but they seemed like an average, middle-class family. Now she is faced with the very real possibility that she will bury her husband and all three children. How does she process this?

The brother already announced that the odds are not good he will survive five years. His goal is to watch his eldest (the 14-year-old with colon cancer) graduate from high school. He is trying to figure out the best way to use his remaining time.

I don't dare think about how the 14-year-old handles this. Or how her siblings feel knowing they are genetically pre-disposed to the same fate. I realize they might not end up with the disease, but given the family history, it's not very likely.

I realize we don't know what tomorrow will bring or how much time any of us will spend on this earth. I think our time is always too short, whether you are my 93-year-old Grandmother or a 14-year-old girl. For me it's how we spend each day that determines the quality of our lives, no matter how long. And, I struggle with how I would spend each day knowing my genetic destiny.

I would like to think I would take the opportunity to find out my genetic pre-dispositions so I could try everything in my power to change my future for the better. A big part of me thinks that I might just prefer to take things as they come because I'd rather just do my best to live a healthy, happy life each day than worry about something I cannot control. My genes are not something I can change, so why worry?

Of course, I haven't been faced with the type of life-altering illness that faces our friend and her extended family. For now I'm just going to keep praying that they all find the strength to face their future with all the happiness and joy they can find.

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