Recently a friend survived a heart attack. He didn’t smoke, kept his weight down, ate the right things, and got exercise. But his father had had a heart attack, and when my friend reached his mid-50s, so did he.
When something like that happens to a person you know, it shakes you. You think about your own family medical history and wonder how many of those health problems were due to lifestyle and how many to awesome genetic forces lurking deep within our cells, like tiny time bombs that could explode with devastating consequences at any moment, irrespective of how much lettuce you eat? Did my father, uncle, and grandfather die of cancer because they were heavy smokers, or because of some squamous anomaly in their mitochondria that was triggered by strands of DNA without regard to intake of tar and nicotine?
And, probing even deeper into the levels of introspection, what would you prefer the answers to these questions to be? Are you a fatalist who is more comfortable thinking you’ve already been dealt all the cards and just have to play the hand as well as you can? If you could take a test and determine, conclusively, that the raging fires of cancer were going to consume your body no matter what you did, would you want to know so you could adjust your lifestyle accordingly and move down the spectrum to enjoy the delightful but unhealthy things you’ve avoided? Or would you rather hope that your good behavior and healthy lifestyle could win you a reprieve from the otherwise inevitable genetic snare?
I’m in the latter category. I’d like to think that my decisions make a difference to the equation and might have an impact on whether I keel over in the near future. My friend’s situation makes me think, however: “Am I just kidding myself?”