Your genes are not your destiny

It’s hard to convey just how much my heart was in my mouth when I first looked at my own genetic results in 2015. With my horrible health history I was worried that I would have a long list of genetic mutations that could lead to my early demise. So imagine how I felt when I clicked on the results and found…

 Nada! No genes for breast cancer.*

In fact the only gene that referred to my breasts in any way was the CC variant for the rs7816345 gene, which codes for ‘typical’ breast size. Which just goes to show that genes really don’t translate into real life as those of you who have met me in person will be able to confirm!

I can’t tell you how much that changed the way I see myself. I was pretty sure I didn’t have the gene as I’ve found no family history, but it was interesting to see it in black and white.

So if I didn’t have the gene, how did I get the disease?

The answer to that is diet and lifestyle.

Does that mean it’s all my fault?

Let’s see if I can wriggle out of that.

Your gene expression is the sum of your lifetime exposures. It starts before you are born. Even before your mother was born, in fact: your grandmother made the egg cell that made you. And your father – well – he probably made the sperm that made you a couple of days before conception so you have to hope it wasn’t on his stag night! Then you spent 9 months immersed in fluid inside your mother and everything that happened to her happened to you, in a diluted sort of way.

Through childhood you were probably dosed with antibiotics, like most kids, and suffered toxic exposure from pesticides and exhaust fumes, solvents and radiation (especially in the 60s and 70s). You probably behaved pretty badly as a teenager from time to time (at least I hope you did) which created a few more hiccups. And the process of becoming an adult and maybe a parent probably included more drugs, lots of stress, some dodgy food choices, too much alcohol, and some sleepless nights. So – eventually – you arrived at the ripe old age you are now with lots of accumulated damage and a diagnosis you didn’t want.

It’s not your fault – lots of elements of modern lifestyle are out of our control – but that doesn’t mean you can’t do something about it.

Receiving a cancer diagnosis is the ultimate wake up call for most of us. The moment we realise that our health is our most important possession and we will do anything we can to get it back. For those of us who take life seriously this can be a time of extreme self-denial and even misery. The drive to live a clean and perfect life in the aftermath of treatment can make things feel a bit monotone, and it’s hard to know if you’re doing the right thing. Outcomes seem to be so random…

Discovering your personal nutrigenetic profile is an excellent way to begin your road to recovery. Nutrigenetics can pinpoint areas of weakness that leave you vulnerable to cancer: detoxification capacity, antioxidant status, hormone metabolism, DNA synthesis and repair, chemotherapy response, nutrient assimilation and sensitivity. It can help you to understand the things that are good for you and bad for you on at the level of your DNA and give you the information you need to improve the way your body works. Importantly, it can help you target the important areas for you, and ease up on some of the areas that are less of a problem.

It’s no coincidence that the genes that can be influenced with diet and lifestyle are closely linked to the pathways involved in cancer. Of course we all know that a high proportion of cancer cases are caused by poor diet and lifestyle choices, but every year I meet lots of people who have been doing their best to make healthy choices. These are the people for whom nutrigenetics is a gift: the chance to understand why your body might get sick even when you’re doing all the right things – and the opportunity to change.

In the next post we’ll look at exactly how we can use our dodgy genes to direct healthy choices.

To learn more about how you can influence your genes following a cancer diagnosis, sign up to Your Life and Cancer 2020 and tune in at 10:00 am on Sunday, 11th October.

*I have since learned that using commercial testing to look for genes like BRCA is not a good idea. Mainly because the test results are not as reliable as they should be, but also because the NHS is the best place to get the test AND the support you need.