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The Shadow’s Edge

Knowledge is power, proclaims the cliché. And thanks to rapid technological advances, our generation has more medical knowledge than ever before. But understanding the interplay between genetics and disease — powerful and often lifesaving knowledge — means that people today face unique psychological experiences, alongside a range of possible medical choices.

Those with a family history of illness may feel the shadow of disease lingering over their lives. Witnessing the loss the disease causes, and living with the knowledge that this illness may affect them, burdens these people with complicated psychological considerations — and equally complicated practical ones. They may make lifestyle choices and even drastic, life-altering decisions based on what’s lurking in their genes.

Doing Whatever I Can

“My father was just 68 when he died from a sudden heart attack,” says Devori, a 56-year-old mother of five. “My memory of his death is very vivid — one morning we got a call that he’d collapsed in the garden. He didn’t survive. He never got to know his grandchildren as they grew up. I feel the lack of his presence every day. He was a quiet man, reserved, but central to our lives. There are so many things I wish I could say to him had he lived.”

Since many cardiac disorders — such as arrhythmias, congenital heart disease, cardiomyopathy, high blood cholesterol, and coronary artery disease — can be inherited, Devori has been living with keen attention to her health ever since her father’s sudden death.

“Several years ago, when I was swimming, I felt a tiny twinge in my heart. I was terrified. After many, many tests, I was diagnosed with a heart condition. Since then, my life changed. I began exercising five times a week and am hypersensitive to any sensations that may indicate another episode. I go for tests and checkups regularly, take several medications, and do whatever I can to be proactive.

“It’s all up to Hashem, but I believe in hishtadlus and doing everything I can to be healthy. When most people have a pain, they can just ignore it and wait till it passes, but for me every twinge brings the question of something fatal. I don’t live in fear, but I live tied to the reality of my health, and the outcomes if I don’t catch it in time.”

Zehavah is another woman doing her best to be proactive. Her family history means that she has an elevated risk of developing colon cancer, a fact that has caused her to make significant lifestyle changes. Cancer took the lives of four of her immediate family members. Her mother died from uterine cancer, and her three sisters all battled colon cancer that eventually proved fatal.

“I’m very afraid of developing colon cancer,” Zehavah admits. “I’ve already had polyps removed. Watching my sisters experience extreme pain and lose their dignity was terrible, but it made me realize how I need to take care of my own health.”

Zehavah does her best to manage her own risk by living as healthfully as she can. “I follow a low-carb, high-fat, organic, natural diet. I am very mindful about what goes into and onto my body. This is the healthiest I’ve been in my life, even though I’m getting older.”

(Excerpted from Family First, Issue 618)

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