By Karen Oslund
The scientists who launched the vast, noble effort to map the human genome probably did not consider the possibility that some day, we humans would use said technology to find out whether our genes predispose us to having a unibrow. But the opportunity is there, and about 26 million people have opted to send their DNA to one of dozens of companies for commercial genetic analysis, to learn this, and other interesting things about ourselves.
Like many decisions we make every day, the question is, “Just because we can do this, should we?” There are complex ethical and privacy issues to consider, which are beyond the scope of this column. It is fascinating to read about the case of the Golden State Killer, who was arrested decades after his crimes utilizing a commercial DNA database that contained the genetic profile of some of his relatives. But I digress.
Thousands of people will receive DNA test kit for Christmas. Our personal genetic profile can present, or solve, intriguing mysteries about our human ancestry, but can also provide information about our propensity to suffer from a medical condition or disease such as cancer. Setting aside the complex ethical and privacy issues involved, should you do it?
I asked this question of Dr. Hengbing Wang, oncologist at Adventist Health Ukiah Valley. He tells me he does not recommend commercially available genetic tests such as 23andMe for hereditary cancer syndrome because they are not comprehensive and could provide false assurance if the result is negative. If you learn from one of these tests that you do not carry a genetic mutation that is associated with a higher risk of cancer, and you say, “OK, I’m good!” and forgo routine cancer screenings, this would be a mistake. Only about 10% of all cancers have an identifiable genetic link, according to the National Cancer Institute (cancer.gov).
In some family trees, there is cancer in every root, branch, and leaf. If this is the case with your family, talk to your medical provider. Genetic counselors can recommend appropriate, comprehensive screening and are also trained to help people cope with what they learn.
We are each stewards of our own good health. We cannot change the cards we were dealt in terms of our genetic inheritance, but so much of our health is absolutely under our control. We make decisions about how we eat, exercise, rest, socialize, avoid harmful toxins such as cigarettes and drugs, and follow a schedule of cancer and other health screenings.
During the holidays, most of us will gather with family, including some of the elder members of our families. It is a good time to ask about family history, including family health history. Since many health conditions including cancer have a hereditary connection, knowing our family health history is important to caring for our own health. You might hear some interesting stories about your family that you did not already know. If you still want to know if you are predisposed to unibrow, however, the easiest thing to do is look in the mirror.
The Cancer Resource Centers’ Cancer Awareness and Prevention series is sponsored by CRC in collaboration with the Mendocino County Health and Human Services Agency. This information is presented for educational purposes and is not intended to replace the advice of your health care provider. The Cancer Resource Centers of Mendocino County is a grassroots organization serving our communities since 1995 by providing information, advocacy, and support services free of charge.