I’m sure you have come across someone who has had cancer. You may even be a cancer survivor yourself. Or you may well be battling cancer as you read this lines. The sad truth is that cancer is one of the most common illnesses among human beings, and nowadays one of the world’s biggest killers. Happily, advances in medicine and science are enabling doctors and medical teams around the globe to treat and cure cancers which 10 or 20 years ago would have been incurable from the outset.
Cancer is wrongly perceived as a “modern” illness because of the commonality and the frequency with which it strikes nowadays (in fact cancerous tissue has been found on Egyptian mummies dating as far back as 1600 b.C). Today it has replaced smallpox, cholera, typhoid and tuberculosis as one of the biggest threats to human health. And yet, for all its apparent newness, cancer and the tumours that it causes have been present for millenia. They were, indeed, much less common in the past because until very recently people, rich and poor, were far more likely to die of many other illnesses at a younger age. Our ancestors and their families usually died before they got a chance to develop a slow-acting illness like cancer; in other words, people rarely lived long enough to suffer from cancer. It is only thanks to medical advances and improvements in public hygiene and sanitation that cities and towns began to offer better living conditions, and so, with the decline of common epidemics came the rise of other illnesses not directly (or at least, not so directly) linked with living conditions.
In my personal case, cancer has been present in my family for generations. How many generations I will probably never know, but it has certainly been there for a long time. I grew up knowing my maternal grandfather had died of oesophageal cancer when he was in his late 50’s. In fact, the illness consumed him so quick he died during a trip to Madrid to see a specialist; little could he suspect that he would make his way back home in a coffin. Tragically, his younger brother, my great-uncle, died of exactly the same type of cancer two years later, in spite of the fact that he was physically active, was not a smoker and didn’t drink a drop of alcohol (unlike my grandfather, who took pleasure in his daily glass of wine). And so, the dreaded illness struck two members of my immediate family some forty years after they had both lost their mother to… yes, you got it: cancer. My great-grandmother died in her late 40’s, eaten away by breast cancer.
For years all this seemed a simple, straight-forward family tragedy. I accepted the fact that cancer had made its entry into the family, and quietly vanished. It wasn’t until the early 2000’s that I realised illnesses like cancer don’t simply “disappear”: one of my Mum’s sisters was diagnosed with cancer for a second time in her life, and succumbed not long after that.
A few years elapsed until I got the dreaded phone call from my Mum to tell me she had noticed a lump on one of her breasts and that she had been diagnosed with cancer. Luckily, following her sister’s demise, my Mum had taken the precaution of going to the doctor for a check-up once a year and made sure she was thoroughly screened for breast cancer. In a way, the diagnosis wasn’t a huge surprise, but I don’t think any of us expected what followed next: not only did she have cancer in one breast – she had cancer in the other breast too, and (and this is extraordinary) both cancers were not related to each other. Her doctor told her it was a very rare occurrence and soon started asking questions about the occurrence of cancer in the family. My Mum didn’t think twice about telling him about her recent family history (her sister, her father, her uncle, her grandmother…), and soon we seemed to be getting onto something much more sinister than pure rotten luck.
By the time my Mum’s diagnosis came in, I was well into my tenth year into family research and genealogy, so you will understand my “excitement” when she started asking me questions about such-and-such relative, and asking what they died of. Curiously, until that time I had not paid much attention to death certificates, having focused mainly on expanding my family tree via collateral branches, ordering birth and marriage certificates, but I soon began searching for the necessary documents to start filling in the gaps.
Knowing my great-grandmother died of breast cancer in 1937, I started looking at her only brother and her eight sisters, and what they each died of. Three of the girls died very young of common infant illnesses, and the brother died of heart failure at an advanced age, so I shifted my focus to the other sisters who did make it to adulthood. The results were shocking: of the five remaining sisters, four of them died of some form of cancer (one of liver cancer, two of breast cancer, and one of lung cancer).
I immediately leaped onto the previous generation to try and find a link to any other cancer-related deaths on either of their parents’ sides. My great-grandmother’s mother died of a diabetic coma, which doesn’t spell cancer to me, but her father did die of cirrhosis of the liver, which I understand may well have been a consequence of liver cancer (and which, perhaps not coincidentally, is actually given as the cause of death for one of his daughters). It seemed like a possible lead, so I researched how my great-great-grandfather’s ten brothers and sisters’ ended their days: again, I discarded two sisters who died in infancy of unknown causes, as well as a third brother who died of smallpox. Of the remaining brothers, one died of what was diagnosed as chronic gastroenteritis (the fact it was recorded as “chronic” makes me wonder may have been something else that brought on his demise?) and the other died of broncho-ataxia (a lung ailment) and pellagra (a deficiency disease). Thus, no immediate signs of cancer among the brothers… but what about the sisters? My great-great-grandfather had a total of seven sisters; leaving out the two mentioned earlier who died in infancy, I have not been able to track down a death record for three of the others. However, cancer is once again given as the cause of death for the youngest two. In fact, the youngest of all, who died of a reproduced mammarian carcinoma aged 39 left a widower and three children aged between five and one year old; I later discovered that the youngest of these also succumbed to breast cancer aged 53.
My research obviously got tougher as I moved backwards in time. Neither of the siblings’ parents appear to have died of a cancer-related illness, and in fact both reached a fairly advanced age. I thought then of turning to their respective siblings, but the father only had a brother (who died of unknown causes aged 57) and the mother only had a sister (who, perhaps suspiciously, died of “rheumatism and flatus”; this again does not necessarily imply cancer, but who knows if rheumatic-type pain could have been caused by an internal tumour of some kind?). Any research into the origins of cancer within the family appears to end with the previous generation at the start of the 19th century, for which no cause of death is given. The matriarch of the branch died aged 35 of “a natural death”, which may well have been a euphemism for something much more sinister, but alas, I don’t think I will ever find out the real reason.
With such a history, our doctor took immediate action and sent my Mum to do some tests for BRCA1 and BRCA2, hereditary genes which are linked to specific types of cancer, most of which are found in my recent family history. My Mum in fact tested positive for one of those types of mutations, as did one of her sisters three surviving sisters. Other members of the family have decided not to test, as they prefer not to know if they are carriers.
Perhaps prompted by my natural curiosity as a genealogist to unravel family mysteries, I was sure that I needed to know if I too was a carrier. My brother and I tested for BRCA2 (the gene my Mum has inherited from her father), and much to our delight and relief, in both cases we came out as negative. This does not mean that we will never have cancer, but our chances of developing the illness are just the same as anybody else’s who does not have a genetic mutation.
So please, please, please, if you have the slightest suspicion that there may be a genetic disease in your family, don’t hesitate to speak to your GP. If you want to know more about the BRCA1 and BRCA2 mutations you can check the following links: