Family's genetic death sentence—and genetic escape
Golda Bradfield's death in 1960 from stomach cancer foreshadowed a legacy she would pass on to the next three generations of her family. She never knew that she had a mutation in a gene known as CDH1 that made stomach cancer almost inevitable. So far, 21 of her 31 children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren have inherited that mutation.
Of Bradfield's seven children who unknowingly carried the mutation, six died of stomach cancer, mostly in their 40s and 50s. It is not known whether the eighth child, who had no children, had the gene.
As Bradfield's 18 grandchildren watched their parents, aunts and uncles fall ill, the threat of stomach cancer seemed ever-present. "I felt like this big cloud was hovering over me since I was 13 when my mother was diagnosed," said Mike Slabaugh, Golda Bradfield's grandson who lives in Dallas. His mother died two years later. He said he never married and never had children because of his concerns about cancer.
Despite his fears, Slabaugh is still alive, as are all but one of his 17 cousins. Slabaugh and his cousins' experience with cancer differed dramatically from that of their parents, who had little warning of when or if cancer might appear. Instead of living or dying at the whim of their genetics, the cousins have turned recent genetic technology to their advantage. They have all been able to be tested for the mutation.
For those inheriting the mutated gene, knowledge means power. They had their stomachs removed before discovering signs of cancer, evading their genetic destiny.
The Bradfield family's experience with genetic testing is one that is becoming more common as research yields increasing numbers of disease-causing genes. Groups such as the Stanford Cancer Genetics Clinic now offer testing for many mutations and have projects under way to learn more about treating and preventing cancer in people who carry those mutations. According to assistant professor James Ford, MD, who leads the clinic, Stanford was among the first to counsel families with inherited genes that increase their chance of stomach cancers—and offers some an operation to eliminate the risk.