genomics & society

Dear Santa,Just Bring Chocolate

Posted by Kelly Hogan on December 21, 2011

I was invincible.

How else can I explain to myself the risks I took when I was younger? I played roller hockey on in-line skates when I was not a capable skater. I went scuba diving to depths that now make me shiver when I think about the experience.  I took a ride after a party from a driver who likely had too many drinks. I did all of these things when I was college-aged.

And then… Stitches in the gaping roller hockey wound on my chin days before my picture-perfect wedding, news about drunk teens wrapping themselves around telephone poles, a friend who didn’t beat the odds with an aggressive cancer, a “modern medical system” that failed patients, the university student president murdered, my own mortality considered laying in a hospital bed.

I was invincible. But death is not just for the elderly. Bad things happen to very good people. Modern medicine cannot save everyone. Numerous psychological studies that shows we are all “risk takers” well into our twenties, but that’s not me anymore.

So when I heard that an undergraduate student of mine, Kiri, had her parents purchase her genome as her Christmas gift this year through 23andme, it got me thinking about doing the same for myself. Initially, it’s an intriguing idea. Why wouldn’t I want to know?  But then…  An uncomfortable feeling enveloped this mother and almost -forty-year-old. It seemed unlikely that I could feel a sense of satisfaction about who I am based on my DNA sequence. What good could come of this?  What would the outcome be? Kiri may still invincible, but I had passed this phase of spontaneity.

Maybe I would find out that I have a higher risk of hypertension or diabetes, two complex diseases that family members have struggled with. Other people would find this as incentive they need to take better care of themselves, but I already exercise routinely, have a low body mass index, and try to follow Michael Pollan’s basic rules about food every day. Knowing this risk wouldn’t make me live life differently, but it would bring me unneeded worry. Does anyone need more of that?

Maybe I would find out that I was lactose intolerant or have wet ear wax. Yes and Yes. A big milkshake and sticking my finger in my ear confirms that both of these are true.

At worst, I might find out that I might have APOE4 allele(s) associated with Alzheimers disease. Could knowing this reveal that my aging parents are at risk? My family history already tells me I am at risk for Alzheimers disease, and modern medicine can do nothing about it. Why scrutinize every brain fart from my parents or myself?

I could go for it and just not examine the parts I don’t want revealed. But considering I can’t keep myself from late night chocolate attacks, would I really not peek in a moment of self-doubt?

In the end, money is not the barrier, nor is the uneasy feeling I get when I think about a company having my DNA and continuing to reveal more and more secrets about it. While the idea of genetic privacy and insurance are concerns, this too is not the reason I won’t purchase 23andme for myself this holiday season. I don’t want to wonder if I will get a “new email” chime with an update for a new disease they had tested me for…I don’t want to live in fear with little options for action. Instead, I want to enjoy my family and the chocolate Christmas cookies without worry. And the day after Christmas, I promise to get back to my healthy lifestyle, which is the best thing I can do.

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