Marcos Chin for Reader's Digest
One of the unfortunate by-products of conducting genealogical research about yourself is cataloging all the various and sundry ways in which relatives met their ends. Here be congestive heart failure. Here be polio. Here be industrial accidents and lightning strikes and diseases of the spleen. Each ancestor’s death is like a fun house mirror asking, “Will you, too, be felled by the French pox?”
Yes, medical advances have lessened my odds of contracting the plagues of yore, but I have been conditioned to accept the fact that my time here on earth is apt to be brief and horrid.
Because I have bad genes.
The poor quality of my family genes was an oft-discussed topic in our household while I was growing up. On what felt like a nightly basis, Mom would remind me and my brother, Eric, that our medical futures looked bleak, her words delivered with the weary resignation of a tarot reader who’d just flipped over the death card.
Cancer runs thick and greasy through my family blood. Mom had uterine cancer, which I think I am safe from due to my lack of having a uterus. My family’s real bogeyman is colon cancer. In a bit of grim familial symmetry, my father’s mother and mother’s father both died from it. It’s also the one type of cancer that’s hitting Millennials hard.
Yet despite Mom’s relentless fearmongering, it never occurred to me to question whether my genes were, in fact, “bad.” Until I ordered a genetic-testing kit online. (Here’s what your doctor is not telling you about “23andMe” and other genetic tests.)
The company I ordered my test from uses a process called genotyping, by which computers match your genome against a control genome. The discrepancies between the two are genetic abnormalities that can be linked to your specific health risks.
When the kit arrives, I assume there will be an assortment of science gizmos, including a hypo¬dermic needle, a high-speed centrifuge, a DNA sequencer, safety goggles, and a tabletop laser. Not so. The box contains exactly one (1) plastic spittoon and one (1) mail-in envelope. Hmm. Shouldn’t the process for untangling my personal double helix be a bit more Star Trek–y than filling a plastic cup with spit?
A couple weeks after mailing off my spit, I receive an e-mail informing me that my results are ready for viewing. On the website, I find information broken down into four categories: “Health Risks,” “Drug Response,” “Inherited Conditions,” and “Neanderthal Ancestry.” Whoa, whoa, whoa. Neanderthal ancestry? Everything else would now have to wait.
Here’s the deal: I am 2.9 percent Neanderthal. That may not sound like a lot, but it is a full .2 percent above the norm. In other words, I am nearly 10 percent more Neanderthal than the average person! This was the manliest thing that had happened to me since getting hit in the eye with a pitch during Little League. I rush to tell my wife the good news.
“I’m a Neanderthal!” I tell her, showing off my test results. I expect her to whip off her clothes and make passionate love to me then and there.
“That explains why you look like that,” she says.
“You have a Neanderthal brow.”
She’s right. I do have a heavy brow. It overhangs the rest of my skull like a buzzard on a tree limb. How did she manage to transform my cool genetic idiosyncrasy into a jab about my physical appearance? Damn her and her more highly evolved Homo sapiens brain.
Deflated, I return to the website, turning to my lines of ancestry, which are a total letdown. As it happens, I am exactly what I have always believed myself to be: 100 percent Ashkenazi Jew, which is characterized by European roots, a long history traced to the original Israeli tribes, and a love for National Public Radio.
Next up, the subject I have been dreading: “Health Risks.” I expect to find a giant blinking nuclear hazard symbol informing me that I am already dead. Instead, the page lists a long column of diseases, along with my approximate odds of contracting each.
The disease I am most likely to develop is not, as I believed, colon cancer, but something called atrial fibrillation, which I learn is basically an irregular heartbeat. I am also three times more likely than the general population to develop “venous thromboembolism,” which is a fancy way of saying blood clots.
As it happens, I already knew this, because my aunt nearly died from a venous thromboembolism of her own. My doctor said there isn’t much I can do about it other than take a daily baby aspirin, get exercise, and make sure I walk around when flying long distances, all of which I now do, except for the part about walking around when I fly long distances and exercising. Taking an aspirin for your heart? Here’s how to make it more effective.
Some other stuff I am at elevated risk for: gallstones, chronic kidney disease, rheumatoid arthritis, macular degeneration, and lung cancer.
Lung cancer??? My lung cancer number is legitimately scary: 11.6 percent. That’s a lot of percent. How can it be that high? I have never used any tobacco products, although I do confess to thinking that hookahs look kind of cool. Can admiring hookahs elevate my risk of lung cancer? (Good question; here are 7 ways your genes impact your drinking habits.
Panicked, I take an online “lung cancer risk test” that asks me a bunch of questions, primarily about my smoking history (none), whether I have ever worked with asbestos (no), and if any work I do or have done with mustard gas was performed with adequate protection (yes, all my mustard gas work was done with adequate protection). After I submit my answers, the test informs me I have a “much below average” risk of contracting lung cancer.
Phew. Mentally, I adjust my odds of getting lung cancer from the 11.6 percent figure to 0.0 percent, because of all the medical strategies known to humankind, denial is the most effective.
But wait—where is colon cancer? I’m supposed to get colon cancer. Mom said so. Nowhere on my “elevated health risk” list does it mention anything about colon cancer. So I jump to my “decreased risk” section, where I learn I am at lower risk than the general population for contracting prostate cancer. That’s good news. After all, the prostate and the colon are physically very close to each other. I think they may even share a cubicle.
The last list is where I finally find my colon. It turns out I am almost exactly average in terms of risk for colorectal cancer. Average risk! This is a huge relief. My colon is run-of-the-mill. Boring, even. It’s the kind of colon you wouldn’t even look at twice if you passed it on the street.
I’m going to live forever! I celebrate my good news by NOT getting a colonoscopy. Did you know you can actually get an at-home colonoscopy kit these days?
A few months after receiving my test results, I read that the Food and Drug Administration has forbidden my genetic-testing company from continuing to sell their product, expressing concerns about the “validity of their results.” How can that be? The validity of their results is the only thing separating them from a company that sells overpriced spittoons. Maybe everything they told me is a lie. Maybe my genes really are bad.
Maybe, but I’m not going back to worrying about that stuff. I can’t. It’s too exhausting. I’ll just do what I can do. I will get my colon checked out—soon, I promise. I will continue taking my daily baby aspirin.
But I will no longer freak out over a future I cannot control. After all … I. Am. A. Ne-an-der-thal!