Vox Tablet

The Things We Carry

What happens when your inheritance includes a life-threatening genetic mutation?

April 7, 2008
(Photo derived from DNA shadow by GazH; some rights reserved.)

(Photo derived from DNA shadow by GazH; some rights reserved.)

Five years ago, Moscow-based journalist Masha Gessen learned that she had inherited a genetic mutation—one which disproportionately affects women of Ashkenazi descent—that put her at high risk for breast and ovarian cancer. A decade earlier, her mother, who carried the same mutation, had died of breast cancer.

Armed with this knowledge, Gessen was forced to make some nearly impossible decisions about her future: Should she take the radical step of having her breasts and ovaries removed to prevent illnesses that might never come? If so, when (given that she was still breastfeeding her daughter, and had considered having another child)?

In her book, Blood Matters: From Inherited Illness to Designer Babies, How the World and I Found Ourselves in the Future of the Gene, Gessen writes about these dilemmas, and about those that others have faced, as genetic testing shines a new—and not always welcome—light on our futures. She speaks with Nextbook about the scientific, philosophical, and emotional implications of this complex new way of understanding ourselves.

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