Rheumatoid Arthritis in the Family: The Genetic Link

  • Back in Oklahoma, I grew up surrounded by family.  Lots of aunts, uncles, cousins, even second cousins galore.  Five grandparents and six great-grandparents.  I was definitely blessed.  The catch?  Out of 13 cousins, only three were girls.  Then two of my female cousins were much younger than I and lived in Colorado.  Literally distant cousins.

    Since those years growing up in Oklahoma, many of us have scattered across the country.  Some farther than others, and several cousins have traveled the world.  We’ve all come a long way, in years and miles, to where we are today.

    What brings family members together?  Is it the time we spend together or the DNA we share?  In my case, it has been some of each.  Let me tell you a recent story.

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    In April I received a random message in my Facebook inbox.  It was from one of those distant cousins, let’s call her Kay, whom I hadn’t talked to in more than 20 years.  Of course our mothers were in touch and I vaguely knew what she was doing through the family grapevine. 

    In her message, Kay told me that she had been looking for information about rheumatoid arthritis and happened upon articles here on MyRACentral.com.  First she noticed the photo of a person who looked somewhat familiar.  Then she read the name and flipped out.  Her very own distant cousin was looking back at her through the computer screen.

    I asked Kay if she were looking for RA information for herself, I hoped not, but said, “it wouldn’t be a big surprise since we’ve got loads of autoimmune diseases in our family.”

    Unfortunately Kay was indeed researching her own recent RA diagnosis.  My heart sunk a bit.  There is certainly something which connects the females in our shared family.

    Growing up, I remember watching my grandmother give herself insulin shots.  She also had a HUGE box of medication bottles kept on top of the refrigerator, out of reach of visiting grandchildren.  I never imagined that I would also have a similar HUGE box of medications and vitamins.

    While I was in graduate school, my mother was diagnosed with lupus.  Since her disease was quite invisible, it was difficult for family members to understand.  And since I lived several states way, I know that I certainly didn’t understand it either.

    A few years later, an aunt was also diagnosed with lupus.  Two of three sisters were now diagnosed with the same disease, by the same physician.  Was it too much of a coincidence, or an overzealous doctor?  Admittedly none of us knew much about autoimmune disease at the time. 

    Then, I was finally diagnosed with multiple sclerosis after years of wondering if I too were developing lupus.  Shortly after diagnosis I told everybody in my extended family about my MS just in case anybody had bizarre, unexplained symptoms and found themselves telling their physician that “my cousin has MS.” 

    We may not know the exact genes which contribute to every disease, but researchers are getting closer to identifying genetic variants which are shared by different diseases.  For example multiple sclerosis and type-1 diabetes share a genetic variant.  So do rheumatoid arthritis and lupus. 

  • By the time I was diagnosed with RA, it was not a big surprise to me.  I had been experiencing mild, transient symptoms in my hands for years which was one reason I thought maybe I too had lupus or something like it.  So I guess I didn’t really make a big announcement when the RA diagnosis was finalized.

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    Kay’s mother didn’t know about my RA until recently, actually not until after her own daughter was diagnosed with it this spring and found my posts.  Our other aunt had been surprised to hear of it sometime last year when I happened to mention it casually during a conversation.  Somehow RA garnered more sympathy from her, being a nurse.

    I’m not at all happy that so many relatives live with autoimmune diseases.  There just seems to be a heavy load in our family across several generations.

    So what brings family together?  In this case it was disease, a website, and Facebook.  Welcome to the modern age of communication.  By the way, Kay has found a great rheumatologist, began treatment, and is doing better.  Now I need to go send her a note on Facebook, although I know that she will very likely read this post.  :)

    This post was written in honor of Arthritis Awareness Month.


    Lisa Emrich is author of the blog Brass and Ivory: Life with MS and RA and founder of the Carnival of MS Bloggers.

Published On: May 31, 2010