A Cancer in the Family

25733619My father, my sister, my aunt, two of my friends, my best friend’s father, and two of my co-workers. These are the people close to me that have been diagnosed with cancer. If I think of family friends and acquaintances, the number grows exponentially. For several of them, including my father and aunt, the cancer proved deadly. Because my father died from melanoma, I am at a higher risk for skin cancer. I thought I was doing enough with my annual checks, but when my sister was diagnosed with a different type of cancer not too long ago, not only did I panic a bit, I also started to wonder whether the two might somehow be related. I was in the middle of my unscientific online research when I was offered a copy of A Cancer in the Family*.

The author, Dr. Theodora Ross, is an oncologist and geneticist with a family history of cancer. She specializes in treating breast cancer and directs a research lab focusing on how cancer genes turn normal cells into cancer cells. When she herself was diagnosed with melanoma, further testing showed that she had the BRCA 1 genetic mutation, which had already led to a high number of cancer occurrences in her family. Her diagnosis put her into the unique situation to be able to look at cancer from two sides: as a doctor and as a patient.

Similar to The Emperor of All Maladies, this book is able to present information in an easy-to-understand way. It is a good mix of scientific explanation and personal experience. Dr. Ross’ book could have easily read like a text book, but it was nothing like that. It was very personal, at times uplifting, and in many ways enlightening. I thought it would simply be scary to find out that you are definitely predisposed to breast cancer, for example. I had never considered that it could be a relief as well to know whether you are likely to get cancer. It’s true, though, that without knowing, you can’t take preventative action.

Although Dr. Ross is clearly an authority, I appreciated that she left room for readers to make their own choices. She never claims that her decision-making process is the way to go for everyone. Though clearly an advocate for genetic testing, she encourages readers to become informed and figure out what is best for them. A Cancer in the Family is definitely a good resource for doing just that.

This book was the push I needed to take some action. I have made an appointment to find out if I should get genetic testing. In the end, finding out whether I’m at a high risk not just for skin cancer but for other types of cancer as well is not only for me. If I have a genetic mutation, then my children might have it as well. And I owe it to them to know for sure.

*I received a review copy from Penguin Group Avery.



  1. Good for you TJ in being pro-active in finding out more about your chances etc. Glad you are taking precautions etc.

  2. I hope you’re able to find an awesome genetic counselor to help you decide what’s the right choice for you 🙂 And I’m glad to hear this book was such a helpful read for you.

  3. I recall seeing a TV documentary a few years ago in which two young girls from the same family were trying to decide whether or not to have the genetic test for the BRCA1 mutation. (Their mother had been diagnosed with it, and there was a high incidence of cancer in her family.) It was such a difficult decision for them to make at a young age…I really hope all goes well with your own investigations.

    • I feel for people who have to make such difficult decisions at an early age. It’s easy enough to say that it’s better to know whether you have a genetic predisposition, but that still doesn’t make it any easier to actually deal with a potentially very scary result.

  4. Scary stuff. I’ve been a bit paranoid about cancer (maybe we all are a little bit) since my cousin died of it at age 25. My Dad has had it as well, but is okay now. My biggest problem, I think comes from my mother’s side. My grandmother had multiple carcinomas removed from her face, mostly, then my mother had a couple removed about 10 years ago. Unfortunately, the age for it seems to be getting younger and younger, because I had a couple of spots removed when I was 35 – one on my leg and one on the side of my face. I haven’t had any since, but I have to confess that I’m paranoid about every new and unusual spot that shows up on my body.
    Seeing a geneticist about it is a brave move, because sometimes it’s easier to just try not to think about it. But, it’s true, when you’re responsible for other little lives everything changes.
    Sending positive vibes for your appointment – I hope all goes well! And I might just look into this book…

    • Thankfully, most skin cancers are not that aggressive and can be easily treated if they are detected early. But once you’ve had a scare, it’s easy to be paranoid. But I think that’s ok, since it’s becoming clearer all the time how important early detection and prevention are. When it comes to cancer, it’s better to be overly cautious.

  5. It’s frightning isn’t it, how many people we know with a diagnosis. I am very pale with freckles and was sunburned badly as a child. I’m pretty paranoid about melanomas. Hope your appointment goes well xx

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