Saskatchewan·Point of View

My genes are stacked against me; it's made me a fighter

Lynch Syndrome gives the carrier a genetic predisposition to a laundry list of different cancers, meaning there's a mutation in their genes that makes them more likely to become ill. Since my mom was diagnosed the first time I truly believed that it was an "I will get cancer in my lifetime" situation. 

Lynch Syndrome gives the carrier a genetic predisposition to several cancers

Lynch Syndrome runs in Alyssa Leippi's (right) family. Her mother, left, was diagnosed with brain cancer at the age of 48, then breast cancer years later. (Alyssa Leippi)

Growing up, cancer for me was something that old people got. I lost my maternal grandmother before I even got a chance to meet her, my paternal grandfather by the time I was six and my paternal grandmother at 13. 

It wasn't until my mother was diagnosed with brain cancer at the age of 48 that it became real: this disease doesn't just hit elderly people.

My mother's cancer was a rare one: hemangiopericytoma, a type that can be dormant for long periods of time. She went through brain surgery, radiation and lost the vision in her left eye. She ultimately kicked that cancer in the butt. 

But it wasn't long after that my mother's cousins were diagnosed with cancers of their own — all three before turning 55. All of their mothers had died from cancers similar to the ones they were now diagnosed with.

The similarities were too much for one of my cousins who worked in the healthcare field. With the help of her doctor, they figured out that Lynch Syndrome runs in my family.

Join CBC Saskatchewan's Sam Maciag for the January edition of The Novel Idea Society book club. This month, we'll be reading Daughter of Family G: A Memoir of Cancer Genes, Love and Fate by Ami McKay, which deals with the topic of Lynch Syndrome.

Lynch Syndrome gives the carrier a genetic predisposition to a laundry list of different cancers, meaning there's a mutation in their genes that makes them more likely to become ill. And it's hereditary. 

Lynch Syndrome can be identified through the same genetic testing process as the breast cancer BRCA gene test, which has surged in popularity since Angelina Jolie came out about her genetic history. 

It wasn't helpful that my entire family is in Ontario, where the high population causes more roadblocks to testing. 

Author Ami McKay's great-great aunt spawned what would become the longest cancer genealogy ever studied, after she told a pathologist of the common occurrence of cancer in her family. More than a century later, McKay tested positive for Lynch Syndrome.

Here in Saskatchewan, it starts with your family doctor, then testing in Saskatoon. When you start genetic testing, you have a counselling session to prepare you for the information you could find out. I feel like my attitude of "it's not 'if,' it's 'when'" prepared me for this meeting. Since my mom was diagnosed the first time I truly believed that it was an "I will get cancer in my lifetime" situation. 

I also had made the decision early in my life that children were not for me, so having a hysterectomy or mastectomy wasn't a major concern. These are preventative surgeries that you can have if you are positive about your genetic makeup, to help you with your chances of avoiding the cancers that affect these organs. 

I've taken a different approach, though.

At the same time my cousins and mother were going through their genetic testing, I stumbled into an online test group with a health and fitness professional, which led me to understand more about how diet could play a role in my health and my fight against cancer.  

When Alyssa Leippi (top right, pictured with her family) learned about her family's genetic history, it spurred her to start researching ways to make her body somewhere cancer doesn’t want to grow. (Alyssa Leippi)

My mother was diagnosed with HER2+ breast cancer during this time of discovery. This was a hard one. The accessibility to information that the Internet provided wasn't always a benefit to her mentally during this fight. It provided her with a black hole of information, very little of which was positive.

I was also an adult this time around, which gave me more insight into what was going on. Seeing her struggle through the fight the second time really pushed me to start researching ways to make my body somewhere cancer doesn't want to grow.

Knowing what is in my family history has given me two options: either cause me to live in fear or push me to educate myself on what I can do to give me the best chance to live a long life. I personally have chosen option two and used it as a way to help others succeed in their lives.


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About the Author

Alyssa Leippi, originally from Ontario, has lived in Regina for over a decade. She spends her time as a nutrition coach who specializes in the ketogenic diet and offers grab-and-go keto meals for her clients.

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