Is Disease Really Hereditary?

Is Disease Really Hereditary?

Part of the legacy of having a parent who died young is undoubtedly the fear that it too could happen to you. And when you become a parent yourself that fear can be exacerbated a million times. Fear that you could leave your children behind to live through the heartbreaking grief that you experienced. I’m a pretty positive person in general, but any lump or significant pain elicits utter terror that a trip to the doctor could result in a cancer diagnosis.

Not only because when well-meaning friends or family say ‘don’t worry, it won’t happen to you’, you know it does, and can, happen to anyone. But also because there’s a widely held belief that many diseases including cancer, heart disease and diabetes are hereditary, as well as evidence that people are predisposed to chronic disease dependent on their genetic make-up.

My Mum was just 7 years older than I am now when she passed away after a four year battle with cancer. It started with lung cancer caused, I was told by a specialist, by second-hand smoking. She never smoked herself and she taught health and nutrition for a living.

I constantly have to remind myself that due to laws restricting smoking in public I barely ever breathe in cigarette smoke so am surely less likely to get lung cancer myself. But that nagging fear that I could get ill simply because my Mum got cancer so young persists and has taken on new meaning now I’m a mother.

The data can also feel confusing. BreastCancer.org states only 5-10% of breast cancer cases are hereditary, yet they also say you are ‘substantially more likely to have an abnormal breast cancer gene if you have blood relatives (grandmothers, mother, sisters, aunts) on either your mother’s or father’s side of the family who had breast cancer diagnosed before age 50.’ The positive followed by the fear factor.

Positive news from the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) is that 20-40% of deaths by chronic disease can be prevented by not smoking, reducing alcohol intake and sun exposure, doing more exercise, and having a healthy diet (all of which I do and none of which have anything to do with genetics).

Plus I was interested to learn recently about an upcoming documentary called The Yoyo Effect which challenges the notion that chronic disease is predominately hereditary, and argues that our risk of getting cancer, heart disease or diabetes is dependent more on what we eat than what our parents died of.

Food for thought, indeed, and my quote of the week has to come from Adam Sud, a Diet and Health Coach featured on The Yoyo Effect:

‘You are not a victim of your genetics. You are a victim of what you
decide to put on your plate’

Phew!! I also recently watched a thought-provoking documentary called What The Health?, which explores the link between diet and disease. The film reaffirms the idea that a high intake of animal products in your diet increases your likelihood of getting disease, but also uncovers the apparent disturbing collusion between leading health associations and the meat and dairy industries despite the results of research. The film has been both praised and criticized (here’s a great review), and you can draw your own conclusions after watching it – but it feels like good news to me.

I’m no expert, but I do know that knowledge is power. What you put in your body is your own choice, but by arming yourself with knowledge from all sides gives you the power to make choices you believe are right for you and your family. And hopefully it can ward off some of those fears and we’ll all be here a lot longer than we think!


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