By Gene Veritas
People who’ve tested positive for genetic diseases but still don’t have symptoms find themselves playing a terrible waiting game.
I tested positive for Huntington’s disease in June 1999 at the age of 39. HD usually strikes people in their 30s, 40s, or 50s. My own mother, who died of HD at age 68 in 2006, started showing the psychiatric effects of HD around age 48.
So my symptoms could start any time.
Difficult to predict
With HD, the more severe the genetic defect, the earlier the disease starts. But doctors and scientists cannot predict the exact moment when a person will display symptoms. What makes this fatal brain disease even trickier is its variety and complexity of symptoms. Researchers are finding that the disease affects many functions, from those as subtle as the sense of smell to as basic as the ability to walk.
The disease also causes decline variably in different people. The normal course usually runs 15 to 20 years. But some people live a long time until the worst symptoms kick in, while others become helpless early on.
HD is caused by a single genetic defect, but researchers are searching for so-called modifier genes that might trigger onset. Environmental factors and lifestyle also may affect onset and the severity of the disease.
My own waiting game
So I have played the waiting game for eleven years.
Not long after I was tested, my wife and I noticed that my legs twitched at night as I would fall asleep. We panicked, because the first physical manifestation of my mother’s HD was uncontrollable trembling in her legs while in bed.
A physician with detailed knowledge of HD informed me, however, that many people have nocturnal twitching and that mine was probably not related to HD.
We were relieved, but, because the genetic defect eventually strikes all
carriers, we know it’s only a matter of time before something begins to go wrong.
Subtle versus classic symptoms
Over the past decade I’ve noticed a decline in several areas such as short-term memory and reaction time behind the wheel. This could be HD – or simply the aging process. (I turned 50 last year.)
I did well at my last annual check-up with an HD specialist. I am still apparently free of classic HD symptoms.
But I’m also aware that the more subtle symptoms could be at work. And I know that the latest research demonstrates that changes in the HD-affected brain start occurring years before noticeable symptoms arise.
Recently I’ve been feeling angry about being in this state of limbo.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m very happy to be healthy. When I see other HD-affected people in my age group (40s and 50s), I feel blessed in being able to work, write, travel, and enjoy my family. I’m exercising, eating nutritious food, taking supplements, and keeping an active mind so I can try to stave off the symptoms as long as possible.
I’ll admit that sometimes I experience that little bit of death wish that we all do from time to time. During an HD check-up a couple years ago, I expressed amazement to the doctor that I had no apparent symptoms. “Be thankful,” he said.
In a weird way, I felt cheated. I had been preparing myself all these years for onset, and it didn’t happen!
It’s as if I’m preparing for a great battle, but the battle never comes.
I think what I really wanted was definition
in my life about HD. I wanted to know how it would start and when. (I know that’s a narrow focus; onset will bring huge burdens to my wife and daughter.)
These visits to the HD doctor always unleash powerful feelings. I see individuals with severe symptoms. I know some of them and have seen them decline over the years.
I feel deeply relieved not to be in their situation.
And I feel sad and guilty watching them struggle with walking, talking, and the other basics of life that HD takes away.
A cruel joke?
Other times my imagination wanders into the territory of conspiracy theory. It goes something like this: the geneticist who gave me my test results made a terrible mistake and mixed up my results with somebody else’s. I am not really gene-positive! That’s why I don’t have symptoms!
A similar version gets paranoid: that geneticist wanted
me to suffer and lied
about the results!
“It’s a hoax!” I tell myself.
“Is this some kind of cruel joke?” I angrily ask myself. “I’m told I’m going to get a disease, and yet no symptoms have come. I keep wondering about it.”
Wanting to “resign” from HD
A few weeks ago, I daydreamed about writing a “resignation letter” from my volunteer position with HDSA-San Diego. “I’m tired,” the letter stated.
I felt especially resentful because I had just returned from a very enjoyable 32-day, 8,300-mile cross-country car trip
with my family. I didn’t answer any HDSA e-mail during that time, and I put thoughts of the disease and our cause to the back of my mind.
After the vacation, however, the hard reality of HD worked its way back to the forefront. It’s time for my annual check-up, and also for the tenth annual HDSA-San Diego Celebration of Hope Gala
, our biggest fundraiser of the year.
Commiserating with Michael Douglas
In late August I watched actor Michael Douglas reveal on national TV that he had stage-four throat cancer. My heart went out to him. But, as he put it with the characteristic Douglas family determination, he had an 80 percent chance of beating the cancer.
“At least there’s a treatment!” I thought. Good for him!
But then I immediately thought how there is a zero
percent chance of beating HD – because there is still no treatment and even less a cure.
So, just as I think about HD practically every morning, so must I daily rededicate myself to the fight against it.
Fighting on a new level
Not coincidentally, I’m gradually and very strategically going public about my gene-positive status. In June I gave a speech in Brazil
in which I came out to an audience of several hundred people.
Later this month I will make a presentation on my life with HD for a local biotech company, Vertex Pharmaceuticals
, which researches the disease. It will be the first time I speak in public about HD to an American audience.
I really do wish HD were just a cruel joke or a bad dream. But as I think of my mom and all of my friends and acquaintances living with the disease or at risk, I know all too well that HD is real.
Tags: tested positive, genetic, symptoms, Huntington's, mother, psychiatric, genetic, genetic defect, brain, modifier gene, memory, exercise, geneticist, gene-positive, HDSA-San Diego, HDSA, treatment, cure, Vertex, wife, daughter