Family History

05Jan10

I finally got word back from the cancer agency today. The holidays slowed things down it seems.  Anyways, they sent me six pages of forms to fill out, mostly of my family history. I imagine that for many people this is a bit of a pain to fill out. But since my mother and grandmother have just gone through the family history of cancer for their own genetic testing, it’s not too hard now. And it just so happens that I have been researching my family history for several years. So I have quite comprehensive records of my relatives names, birthdays, etc.  And I have conveniently stored this info in an open-source software program GRAMPS.  With the news of BRCA, I have recently started inputting the medical history in the program too. (Maybe I’ll start working on a plugin one day to make medical history reports too.)

What I have found is that there is a very strong history of cancer in my maternal great-grandfather’s family.  Using information from cousins, it seems we can narrow down the origin of this mutation to a small town on the western coast of Norway.   I am still not exactly sure what generation it started in.  But it’s possible it might be a side effect of the Plague that started in Norway in 1349 and killed nearly half the population.   And even after the Black Death, the communities of Norway were quite small and isolated.  We have genealogical records of the family in Norway going back nearly 13 generations and they show very little migration beyond the neighbouring villages.  So with little genetic diversity, this destructive genetic mutation was able to continue to get passed down in the generations.  Interestingly, our family history shows that most relatives had very long lives.  Some even living into their 90’s in the 1700s.  I’d like to think this means our mutation is a “nicer” one.  But the truth is, it hasn’t been good  for my mother’s generation at all.  Is it the differences in our modern day lifestyles?  Is it environmental pollution?  Is it some other genes that got introduced to the family?  I wish I could find more answers on this.  (Any genetic researchers interested in our family?)  I wish I could break the family of this curse.

I have created a chart to show the family relations and how the gene has been passed on to family members.  While I can’t map out all the data (that chart would be huge), I have put together the latest five generations in my family:

The squares indicate a male relative and the circle a female.  The slashed line indicates that person is already deceased.  While it’s fascinating to see “genetics at work” in this chart, it does quickly become depressing when I realize what I am looking at.  All of my grandmother’s siblings have been affected by cancer.  Now it’s moving on to the next generation: my mother and aunt.  In my generation, we have 10 women (many with young children not shown on this chart).   How many of us are carrying this gene?  I’d like to hope in the future, I could add “confirmed non-carriers” to this chart.  And I’d like to hope that the pro-active options that we have now will help us stop the wave of cancer in my generation.

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