I used to joke around with my mom and call her the sickest healthiest person I know. Going to the doctor made her giddy. She craved daily reassurance that she was in good health. Although we would laugh about it, I understood why she felt powerless and always at the mercy of traditional doctors.
She was only ten years old when her father had a fatal heart attack. Two brothers dropped dead before the age of 55 from advanced heart disease. She also had a front row seat to her mother and sister’s descent into Alzheimer’s disease.
My mother was preoccupied with her genetics because of her genetics, but also because of her generation. The doctors they’d put their faith in were not healers who empowered patients to make the kinds of lifestyle changes we take for granted today. She raised me and my brother in a culture of two extremes: excessive worry or avoidance, neither particularly pro-active. Did I mention we are Jewish? Worry is not in our DNA, it is our DNA.
And then there’s food.
There were two approaches to food: excess or deprivation. One day we’d go to the grocery store and inhale the biggest Hershey bar we could find before we checked out. Or later, during the diet cycle of the month, nothing was allowed in the house but white tuna in water and melba toast. She remained overweight and scared, and my relationship with food was equally as whack.
When my father was diagnosed with prostate cancer, my mom finally made real changes that stuck. 40 pounds lighter, she was where she had always wanted to be.
One day while we were out for lunch eating tuna sandwiches and diet Pepsi, jaw pain hit her. My loving mother didn’t want me to worry so she left the restaurant without saying anything and drove herself to the doctor. She called later to tell me she was at the hospital. The doctor had done an EKG which revealed she’d had a heart attack. Three stents and a shit-ton of meds later, she entered and then graduated from cardio rehab.
Post-rehab, she’d be stable for a little while and then her blood pressure would spike again, and the doctors would reflexively increase her meds. Freshly concerned, she’d spend hours on the phone daily with the pharmacist to make sure that the new drugs would not interact with all her others in any unintended way.
Continuously piling on more meds (and worry) just hit me wrong. Didn’t anybody think to question why this was happening?
The cause of all these problems was recited like a chant: She’s prone to heart disease. Genetics. Blah blah blah. I didn’t buy it. And I was right.
My mother was my best friend, and the best mother, in so many ways. I was so relieved when she had a stress test and the doctor said, “Mrs. Foster I can only hope I’m as healthy as you are at 78.”
One month later she wound up in the hospital with back pain. Two months after that she died from a rare infection in her spine that spread to her brain.
It was through watching this that I decided I could not, and would not, live that life. Unfortunately, I didn’t figure out how to do that until many years after she was gone.
Lifestyle changes can’t completely outrun your genetics, but living in fear is a death sentence that’s not in my DNA—and it isn’t in yours. You can improve your quality of life and add years to it. With genetic testing, exercise, and nutrition, you can prevent heart attacks, manage inflammatory disease, and kick the over-worrying habit.