Genetically Speaking

Words by Mark Jarvis

I was about 13, it was Christmas and the phone rang. We weren’t expecting a call but when it became obvious my Dad was talking to someone overseas I realised this would not be good news. My Dad's sister lived in Canada. We had seen her the Christmas before when she came over for her younger sister's wedding. However, in between, she had been diagnosed with breast cancer. It was a virulent strain and back then the chances of survival were much less than now. My aunt had died.

To be honest whilst I was a little concerned for my Dad. Who didn’t really talk much for the rest of the day, I didn’t think too much about it. I had plenty of issues of my own as a 13-year-old: spots that grew in all sorts of strange places, uncontrolled hormones, and, of course, my unrequited love for whomever it was that week. 

Then about 10 years ago my Dad had his own little cancer scare. The local hospital was great and as part of their service offered some support conversations. During one of these, they asked about family cancer history. This led to the offer of genetic screening to see if there was a higher risk.

Protect your children

Fast forward a few more years and two of my cousins in Canada were diagnosed with breast cancer. Statistically, it is not that unusual until I say that both are male. They were offered genetic screening and both have the BRCA gene. This is the gene that was made famous by Angelina Jolie. All of a sudden that Christmas, when I was 13, took on a whole new perspective. I am not that concerned for me, although I do now check my chest in the shower roughly every month as I am the father of my daughters.  I want to protect my daughters, however old-fashioned that may seem to them, however, I am not ready to confront knowing so I have not taken a test myself.

Science of fate

It is hard to look at your daughters and think that your gene pool is like a game of Russian roulette and the chances are one of them is going to have to face something you won’t wish on an enemy. I have talked it over with them. As far as I know, they have not gone for a test, I have encouraged them to check themselves. My Aunt was in her early 40s when she died, so the sooner they get into the habit the better.

In her excellent book 'The science of Fate' Hannah Critchlow looks at the scientific advances in our understanding of the impact of genes.


Parenting is hard

When we were growing up in the 60s the nurture/nature debate was definitely in the nurture camp, with many claiming we could all be anything we wanted to be. Science is now suggesting almost the opposite: our genes predetermine much of what we end up doing, eating and enjoying. Despite this, I am still taking some of the credit for the great people my daughters have grown up to be! Parenting is hard work, you need a little celebration of the good bits.

I have no idea what, if anything, my genes have passed to my daughters or my grandchildren, but I hope this has inspired you and your significant others check yourselves for unusual lumps & bumps and don’t ignore those changes as you get older - get it checked, it might be nothing.

Footnote - both my male cousins are in remission from breast cancer - if you are interested in my elder cousins journey he has a blog at:


Angus about to run in a sponsored 6K for Cancer Research in Canada

Japanese Culture.jpg