The Genetic Lottery

A few of the friends in my life have been really thoughtful about my cancer, often discussing the diagnosis with me or letting on that they have given great consideration to the “why” of it all. I get that. I think a good many people were actually shocked by my diagnosis, given the impression that I’ve been a “healthy individual” or at least someone who pays attention to the foods they put in their body, is highly active, and publicizes those efforts often. And so it follows that people really want to know “why this happened” to someone like me, because the general story goes that you get cancer because you messed up. You get cancer because you smoke. You get cancer because you eat hot dogs. You get cancer because you were unfortunate enough to live by a field that got sprayed with carcinogenic chemicals every other day. Basically, you get cancer from “knowable” circumstances or behaviors….but that’s not necessarily true.

What I’ve discovered in my own reading up to this point is that there is no ONE thing that gives you cancer. In actuality, we ALL have cancer, in that we have cancer cells in our body that are kept in check and prevented from growing, attacking, and spreading by specific biological mechanisms. And in order for those mechanisms to fail, thereby allowing cancer to grow and spread, a CASCADE of “failures” needs to take place. So it isn’t just ONE thing that causes cancer to grow. It isn’t JUST smoking. Yeah, we can confidently say that smoking is an aggravating factor, but it’s not JUST that. It has to be in concert with other developments, such as other environmental factors, or diet, or gene mutations. It’s that last one I’m going to discuss further here.

So even with these cascading influences, I’ve done a lot to eliminate the ones we know of from my life. I do a lot “right”. I eat organic often. I eat primarily whole foods. I eat little refined sugar. I am very active. But, ignoring environmental factors, there is nothing I can do about a fundamental gene mutation that allows cancer to grow. Now, I’m not at ALL saying that a genetic mutation is what caused my cancer….I honestly have no idea WHAT caused it….but it’s worth consideration. It’s worth consideration, if not for my sake, then for my son’s sake.

It should be mentioned here that my grandmother died from a stomach cancer and my sister died from breast cancer that metastasized to the rest of her body…and now I’ve got stomach cancer. That’s three people in just 2 generations, so to know more about our genetic lineage and if there is anything we can do specifically to address the potential of cancer risks is important. And I KNOW genetics is a powerful force in our family. For whatever athletic talents my parents did or didn’t tap into, I can tell you that me and my two sisters tapped into our running abilities and all succeeded at some level or another and it’s safe to say that is, in part, DIRECTLY related to our genetic lineage. That part of our life was, as my coach likes to say, “winning the genetic lottery”, but all the same we could be losing it too if we can’t figure out what MIGHT make us more susceptible to cancer growth than others, no matter if we do the “right things” or not.

Let me say this though….it’s too late for me, probably. I have cancer. But maybe my cancer, as the third in our lineage, is the tipping point to figure out why, or at least ONE factor. Maybe, with the advances made since mapping the human genome and genetic testing becoming more affordable, we can figure something out.

Just the other day my parents mentioned talking to someone, who after finding out about my family’s cancer history, strongly suggested I go for genetic testing. Now, on one hand I don’t care….my cancer experience has begun and is HOPEFULLY nearing it’s halfway point, but I’ll tell you, if the information gained from the testing could in any way help my son avoid having to go through this due to any genetic mutations, or whatever, that I might have passed on to him….then yes…let’s do this….yesterday. At this point nothing has been scheduled, but it will be an interesting experiment to discuss down the line.

So yeah, I’m not going to labor over the “whys” of my cancer diagnosis and I’m certainly not going to look for THE magic bullet, because there isn’t one. The simple truth is that we are biologically complex beings subject to shifting influences in our world, working our way through the evolutionary process, always works in progress that don’t follow a trajectory towards “perfection”, but rather wax and wane with the tides so to speak. We are incredibly imperfect, filled with microscopic DNA chains that can turn us into athletic superhumans and yet at the same time have us drop dead without warning all because of one tiny little break in the genetic chain. Seriously. We are both strong and fragile.

Following on this subject, a reader commented on my last post with the following (excerpt):

I guess after reading “The China Study” and seeing “Forks over Knives” I was just assuming that being vegan can stop cancer and prevent like 97% (that aren’t genetic) of cancers, so I am disappointed you have it.

The reader is relatively new to veganism and his “disappointment” is not directed at me, but rather the idea that maybe what is said in The China Study and Forks Over Knives isn’t necessarily gospel. Believe me, I get that. I had read The China Study and watched Forks Over Knives before my diagnosis and as convincing as they are, I had my skepticism. The claims were just too good to be true and I as read a little deeper into the science of it all I found a LOT of criticism on the way the studies were conducted and the conclusions that were published.

In this day and age it is folly to think that any CURE TO CANCER is being suppressed by some money hungry corporation. That’s just a level of skepticism and conspiracy theory mentality that is completely out of touch with the reality of the situation. So, with The China Study and Forks Over Knives, although they make a lot of great points about changing ones lifestyle and diet to benefit ones health, they aren’t THE SOLUTION to curing cancer. I’ve been eating vegan for 19 years now….and I got cancer. As much as these movies want to sell the idea that eating vegan will make you invincible to cancer (and they do that), I bet if you pressed the researchers and authors, they would tell you that is simply NOT the case. They know this and it’s too bad that the impression of these movies leads you in that direction.

Just recently THIS BLOG touched on the very subject of “disease shaming” in relation to vegans getting illnesses. To take an excerpt…

Every day, I see more and more far-fetched claims about veganism from a health perspective, presenting it as the ultimate magic bullet to unflagging wellness. Vegans do get cancer (less often, but still), we do get fibromyalgia, we do get aneurisms, and we can also break our legs, necks and so forth. These things happen. It’s nothing to be ashamed about, but, too often, we choose to live in isolation rather than risk exposing that we are mortal and vulnerable, just like everyone else.

This is very dangerous.

Veganism is a lifestyle that encourages compassionate living. Very often, there are real physical advantages to it, too, but perhaps this is overstated in our eagerness to win people over and to save more animals.

You know, there was a time when I WANTED to believe that veganism would make you bullet-proof to disease, but after thinking it through I quickly got that idea out of my head, which was good because I soon came across plenty of people who got cancer, had heart attacks, and other ailments…and guess what…it probably wasn’t diet related. Some of it may certainly have been (you can eat an incredibly unhealthy vegan diet), but some of these deaths were shown to be from genetic mutations and fundamental problems in biology (enlarged hearts, etc.) that can’t be eaten back to health. Hell, some of the country’s top marathon hopefuls (2:15 marathoners) have collapsed and died on the run just as they were breaking into the pro-circuit…and it wasn’t because they ate poorly. Anyways, I’m digressing.

My point is that not everything has a social enemy. My cancer may be, in part, from environmental influences, but it may also be primarily from an uncontrollable genetic mutation, just as my athletic abilities as a distance runner have A LOT to do with my genetic lineage. I may have both won the genetic lottery AND lost it (no offense mom and dad). It’s hard to say.

Ultimately, we are imperfect beings simultaneously growing and degenerating with the energy of existence and we should always do what we know is best to live “the right life”, to live as we know will best raise our quality of life, but also recognize that our imperfections are out of our control and nothing is guaranteed. That is the ONLY guarantee.

My only personal concern now is if I did, in part, “lose” the genetic lottery, that the part I “won” will work to take over and put this cancer into remission so I can get back to shaping the part of my genetic lineage that turned me into a unique distance runner. And then hope any potential cancer-causing mutation I might have doesn’t get passed on to my son. Above all else, that is what matters most to me in this consideration.

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3 responses to “The Genetic Lottery

  1. A wonderful post, Scott. Thank you. Perhaps the greatest difficulty is for us when ill or under any misfortune to try the impossible, that is, to understand that there is no ‘why’ answer (i.e., a single or even multiply identifiable cause) for that misfortune. Even in the case of smoking there are exceptions to the statistical data (the ‘Japanese exception,’ those old Maoists who smoked like chimneys and lived long lives, etc.)
    From what I understand, cancer is not thought of now as any one disease. We all have malignant cells in our body that for one reason or another appeared and are in one way or another expressing or not expressing themselves further. From what I’ve read, genetic testing may or may not be helpful; apparently, in some cases, though, it really is very helpful, for in some rare diseases mutations have been identified that radically responded to existing drugs. Most cancers are just bombarded with drugs that statistically show results, but in many cases until recently, apparently, those morphological cancers (e.g., breast cancers) were not further identified by subtypes (or perhaps, better, by their singular specificities, since morphological site of clinical appearance doesn’t seem to be the best way to characterize these cancers, and thus the notion of ‘subtype’ is could be more of a heuristic, I guess, than a good classification system). Maybe genetic testing would be useful, if you found a good place that could do this (Stanford? UCLA?–I don’t know.) Maybe your doctor might know. It could be that you have a type that would respond wonderfully to some trial. The morphological type of cancer that you have seems to be so rare that it would seem that any better identification of the genetic signature of your cancer that, as I understand it, starts in the appendix, they think, and then spreads throughout the abdomen, might be worth exploring, not only for you, but for your son. And given the history of cancer in your family, perhaps this might be a clue too.

  2. Hey Scott, from what I gather you have become very competent in the biology of cancer itself – but if you ever had any questions or what not, I actually work in a genome sequencing lab and my grad research focused on methods of gene regulation. I’m definitely no expert here, but just though I’d mention…

    • Thanks for the offer Laura…I’ll definitely keep it in mind! Cause I’m just spitballin here..this stuff is confusing! 🙂

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