Why I Won't Let My Genetic History Of Cancer Conquer Me

Written by Jenny Drew

I've always been anxious about my health. My mum was taken seriously ill when I was 10. I never really knew what cancer was ... I can imagine it's a difficult thing to explain to a child. I think everything I saw and imagined manifested in my subconscious as this looming dread that it was going to kill my mum and then it would be coming to get me. Any pain in my body and I got into a state and started planning my funeral in my head.

When I was 29, my doctor suggested I be put on a long waiting list to see a genealogist.

A year later I turned up at the same hospital I'd visited every day as a child when my mum was an inpatient.

I was called in to a white room to see a white man in a white coat. He had some white paper. He told me that he had examined my family history, then he drew a family tree made out of lines and squares and lines. He said some of the family history is irrelevant.

He put a cross through some of the lines. He then drew me a diagram of some circles with some arrows indicating genes or something.

"Based on your history, there is a chance that you have Lynch Syndrome. It is a genetic condition that has a high risk of colon cancer as well as other cancers due to inherited mutations. It is a type of cancer syndrome."

I went numb.

"How do you know whether I do or not?"

"We can check your mum's tumor."

... But ... What? My mum hasn't had cancer for over fifteen years. "The tumor isn't there any more ...?" I ventured

"Well, it will be hanging around in a lab somewhere."

What? Hanging. Around. In a LAB. Somewhere. I didn't understand. He brushed over it admitting that it does sound rather "grisly," then he drew me some more diagrams.

He made recommendations about annual intrusive tests. He added, however, that none of these things will necessarily accurately predict whether or not I'll get cancer.

I left feeling confused and scared. I felt like I'd just been told something significant, but also had been told nothing at all. Like I'd been given an ominous diagnoses of something nonexistent. What could I do with this information? My habitual reaction was to go outside and chain smoke, buy two bottles of wine and go home to watch reality TV.

So as I set off back along the white corridor, not breathing, already blocking the conversation with the doctor from my mind, looking forward to wine and oblivion ... I came to a stop when I saw a little sign on a door saying "room for space — anyone welcome."


I pushed the door open and everything seemed to go quiet. There was a tree in the corner covered in colored ribbons tied to the branches. A note attached to the tree said:

"The tree is a quiet form of outreach and support to anyone who comes by this room. You are invited to tie a ribbon to one of the branches as a symbol of your thoughts or prayers in the belief that they may all be connected."

I added a piece of material to the many already tied to the branches. For the time that I was in the room I felt a bit sad thinking of everyone who had been here before me, but also I felt peace.

When I left the hospital I didn't have the same urge to get drunk. I stopped by my mum's for a chat on the way home. I took my dog for a long walk in the fields. I drew a picture of the evil tumor trapped in a lab and sent it to my art therapy group over Facebook. Then I went to bed with a cup of herbal tea.

My therapist recommended a doctor to me — unique in that he has been trained in Western and Eastern medicine. He treated me like a whole person, giving me advice about the tests, my diet and Family Constellations therapy — which focuses on generational suffering. He talked about epigenetics: how our diets, our stress levels and traumatic events may be altering genes which are passed down the family. I learned that it is possible that modified genes can be healed with healthy living and therapy. He told me that the biggest factor influencing my health is going to be how I take care of myself.

I haven't made a decision about the tests, but I'm glad that I went to see the genetics man in the white room. I feel like that day led me to a crossroads of choices about my attitude toward my health: Disassociation, filled with helpless fear, blinded by information I don't understand — or awake and living, like the ribbon tree.

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