What if I knew I would get cancer again?
Growing up as a childhood cancer survivor is a different experience for each of us. But if you took a poll, I guarantee that we all share a common fear at some point: the possibility that cancer will return.
I came to St. Jude right before my second birthday with a rare form of acute myeloid leukemia called erythroleukemia, which affects the body’s red blood cells. Although I’m considered cured of my cancer, the risk of getting cancer again is always there. And simple ailments that may seem normal for others, aren’t so simple for cancer survivors like me.
The thoughts may be fleeting or they may be ever-present, but they stay in the background waiting to pop up when you least expect it.
"What's this bruise?"
"Am I coughing more than I usually do during allergy season?"
"Why am I always so tired?"
Working as a scientist at St. Jude and being involved in the St. Jude LIFE survivorship study, I'm acutely aware of the risk of a secondary cancer due to my primary treatment. The truth for many of us childhood cancer survivors is that feeling of being normal and healthy may never be a reality.
As a cancer survivor, would knowing the contents of my genetic make-up drive me to change the way I live? I believe it would, and it would be a welcomed gift.
At this year's annual meeting of the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR), my colleagues at St. Jude announced the results of a ground-breaking study: a whopping 12% of childhood cancer survivors studied carry genetic mutations that put them (or their children) at an increased risk of developing cancer.
This is substantially higher than the 8.5% they thought in the past.
Twelve percent is a considerable amount — not the "it will never be me," one-in-a-million chance. It's 120,000 in a million chance I could get cancer again. 12 out of 100.
But knowing the full map of my genes provides an even clearer picture of those possibilities. This study will potentially have an immediate and lifesaving impact on childhood cancer survivors by providing us with new artillery in our cancer-prevention arsenal.
Genetic mapping along with counseling to explain my genome’s make-up could even pinpoint specific types of cancer for which I may be at risk. Knowing a predisposition for any health issue would allow cancer survivors like me to face those "what-if" fears proactively.
Instead of living our lives worried about every bruise or sneeze, we may better know what to watch for, how to more appropriately focus our preventive health care, and more clearly recognize when we actually need to worry — putting those countless precious minutes to better use by living our lives and making memories.