The Heaviest Heart: Guilt and Genetic Disease

Why parents feel guilty for passing down diseases, and why they shouldn't.

ByABC News
March 23, 2009, 7:05 PM

March 24, 2009— -- Deep in the DNA of Marietta Drucker sits one mutated gene amid the tens of thousands that account for, among other things, her blue eyes, blond hair and wide toothy smile.

That gene, one of only a handful of recognizable landmarks in the chemically complex and shadowy map of the human genome has a name, BRCA, and a destiny -- to spawn a potentially deadly form of breast or ovarian cancer.

Six years ago Drucker, then 76, was diagnosed with stage three ovarian cancer, news she believed was a "death sentence" and "about as bad as it could get."

"But then," she says, "it got worse."

Within weeks of Drucker's diagnosis, her two daughters tested positive for the breast cancer gene, an inadvertent and unwelcome gift from their mother.

Within months of her surgery, one daughter would be diagnosed with breast cancer, the other would have a prophylactic hysterectomy, and both would undergo preventive double mastectomies.

"I felt devastated. I felt sick about it. How could I give the people most precious to me in my whole life -- my two daughters -- this awful, awful gene," says Drucker, now cancer free after surgery and chemotherapy, from her home in St. Petersburg, Fla.

Rationally, Drucker knows she cannot be blamed for her daughters' cancer and surgeries.

Emotionally, she says, it does not matter.

"The guilt is with me every day. I absolutely blame myself. I was and I still am beside myself that my girls had to go through this hell, that they should have to go through life being worried," she says.

Guilt, evolutionary psychologists believe, is an emotion as old as human societies. It is a "negative emotion," which nevertheless often compels us to altruistic action, allowing us to empathize with and then help those in need.

But it can also be debilitating, filling people with a deep sense of shame that shuts them off from others.

"Our guilt mechanism did not develop at a time when we had a scientific understanding of disease or genetics," says John Tooby, co-director of the Center for Evolutionary Psychology at the University of California at Santa Barbara, who studies how humans developed a guilt instinct.

"We rationally understand we are not to blame, but the guilt mechanism does not," he says. "It's comparable to the way you might be paralyzed by fear when on a cliff, even though you rationally understand you have to climb down to safety."