Are You Turning Into Your Mom?
“Oh no — I’m turning into my mother!” If you’re a woman over 30, chances are you’ve said this at least once. Maybe you spotted a certain expression in the mirror, or maybe you heard yourself saying something you swore you’d never say to your kids.
Not necessarily, says Susan Hahn, MS, a genetic counselor and the assistant director of communications, compliance, and ethics at the University of Miami School of Medicine’s Hussman Institute for Human Genomics.
Genes Aren’t Everything
“One thing we fear as geneticists is for people to believe that our medical futures are all predetermined by our genes,” Hahn says. “We don’t want women thinking, ‘Oh, my mother had breast cancer, so I’m going to get it too.’ People should be empowered, not disabled.”
A few disorders, like Huntington’s disease, are very strongly genetically linked. If one of your parents has the mutated gene that causes this neurodegenerative disease, you have a 50% chance of inheriting that gene. If you do, you will develop Huntington’s 100% of the time.
But most diseases that you might see in your mother (or your father) do not have nearly such a powerful genetic thumbprint. They’re not single-gene disorders, but rather, as scientists are learning, they’re caused by the complex interplay of multiple genes with our environment.
“You may be born with a genetic predisposition to certain disorders, but that doesn’t mean you will absolutely develop them,” Hahn says. “It’s like a loaded gun. The genetic predisposition is the gun, and lifestyle factors can pull the trigger. Some of these things we can control, and some we can’t.”
So if Mom had certain conditions, how likely are you to develop them yourself — and what can you do to avoid them?
In some families, an elevated risk for breast cancer is inherited along with brown eyes and great-grandma’s silverware. But you might be surprised at how few cases of breast cancer are linked to a family history.
“About 70% of women who develop breast cancer have no one in their family who’s ever had it before, at least that they know of,” says Wendy Chung, MD, who directs the clinical genetics program at Columbia University Medical Center. “We call those ‘sporadic’ cases. The other 30% of women with breast cancer have at least one person in their family who’s had the disease before: a mother, an aunt, a sister.”
As a daughter, your lifetime risk of developing breast cancer goes up nearly twofold if your mother had the disease. Within that group of women, some have an even stronger family history.