In some cases, it’s easy to see what we inherit from our family, like mom’s smile or dad’s blue eyes, but when it comes to certain health conditions, genetics can play a crucial role across generations effect. This is the story of an extended family with inherited stomach cancer, and the brave but potentially life-saving decisions many members chose to make.
Beth Lambert, fifty-four, comes from a large family. She was one of five siblings, but in 2006 her brother Steve died of a rare form of stomach cancer.
“Just watching our brother disappear from someone who was so vibrant, he really lived as much as he could to the end,” Lambert said.
Meanwhile, their mother was battling colon cancer. Her cancer cells had the same unusual signet-ring cell pattern as her brother. An alert doctor suggested genetic testing. Kristen Shannon is a Certified Genetic Counselor at Massachusetts Comprehensive Cancer Center. She said the dramatic increase in the number of testing labs has recently created a sea change in the field.
“In addition to BRCA1 and BRCA2, we can detect as many as 80 different genes associated with cancer,” Shannon explained.
One of those genes — a mutation in CDH1 — was responsible for the Lambert brothers’ aggressive stomach cancer.
“My sister Kathy tested positive. My brother Mike tested positive. Our brother Dave tested negative and then I tested positive,” Lambert said.
Since the cancer involves the lining of the stomach, prevention means having their stomachs surgically removed.
Lambert and her brother Mike had surgery scheduled on the same day, and then, the focus shifted to the next generation. Mike’s daughter Shannon Walsh tested positive for the CDH1 gene when she was in college. She also opted to have her stomach removed.
“It went from ‘wait as long as you want, within reason,’ to ‘you should really think about doing this,'” Walsh said.
Lambert and her family ate very little. No food is off-limits, but some are easier to process than others. Despite the challenges, Lambert is grateful to their mother for putting them on the path to uncovering genetic risk.
“If she hadn’t done that, you know, we’d be telling a very different story. Honestly, we probably wouldn’t be telling that story here,” Lambert said.
Lambert and her family take nutritional supplements to compensate for their hard-to-handle meals. In addition to Lambert’s niece, one of her children and two of her late brother Steve’s children tested positive for the stomach cancer gene. The family is involved with a nonprofit called “No Stomach for Cancer” to raise awareness and raise money for research. They also say it’s important to pay attention to your family health history, and to seek guidance from a genetic counselor if the disease seems to follow a pattern.
Contributors to this report include: Cyndy McGrath, producer; Kirk Manson, videographer; Rock Correa, editor.