This is the thing with my degree, see. You study, in massive detail, all the things that can possibly go wrong with the human body.
It’s not the pathogens that bother me, I’m not worried – as yet I’ve never caught anything too serious (apart from a bout of food poisoning this year related to, well, the state of our kitchen *grumble*). I’ve got a pretty tough immune system by and large, and anyway, there’s not much in terms of random illnesses you can contract in the UK. Nothing as bad as the Ebola virus, or E.Coli, or whatever.
I worry a bit about cancer – one in three of us will get it, after all, but equally the chances of an individual cell in your body turning cancerous are miniscule, and there’s nothing I can do about that.
There’s also nothing I can do about the bit that does bother me: genetics. Except, kind of, there is. Because I won’t know until it happens that I’ve got cancer, or diptheria, or tetanus. There is nothing I can do to prevent those things from happening except do my bit to prevent those things happening like take a reasonable amount of exercise, not smoke, and read the Daily Mail obsessively, of course. But it’s not me that I’m worried about in terms of genetics – it’s what am I going to pass on that I don’t know about yet? What currently silent heterozygote mistake do I carry – one gene fine, the other containing a terrible deletion or insertion or repeat, which, when I was put together, could be safely ignored because the other gene for whatever-it-is was fine, and won out? What if I just happen to fall in love with someone who also happens to have that error, and there it is? I want someone to sequence my whole genome and just tell me the worst, tell me that I carry genes which will give this child short sight and loose tendons (duh) and probably a mild scoliosis and/or spina bifida (but not the really bad kind) – all that I know I definitely or probably carry on my genome and that’s fine, that’s not caused any big problems for anyone in my family. It’s also possible, but quite a slim chance, that I carry something else which has had terrible consequences within my family; and this frightens me in the dead of night sometimes or when I’m not expecting it to frighten me, and it’s difficult to remember that it’s a very rare thing to carry and I will hopefully not have the bad luck to ever have children with a fellow carrier. And then there’s all the things I don’t carry as such but who knows what will happen, what instability and fragility there is in my genetic code, which, completely unpredictably, will cause all kinds of problems for a child of mine?
And yes, I say I’m not worried about the illnesses I may or may not have, but honestly, I’m terrible, I’ve had headaches and started to worry about tumours; there’s an odd lump on my elbow I keep meaning to get checked out and it’s almost certainly nothing but I’m sure it’s grown; I spent a good proportion of the last year wondering – academically – if I had MS, although why is, well, a story for another time. Let’s not go there…! I wasn’t actually frightened about it, more just drawing parallels and spotting symptoms and adding things up and it came to a fairly reasonable ‘what if’ which concerned rather than frightened me, but I don’t want to go to the doctor’s about it because it’s just too much like hard work to schedule an appointment and register at a surgery (that’s right, I’m not currently registered anywhere. Well, no, I am at Uni Town, but… well, that’s a rant for another day. The UHS is the Fort Knox of bureaucracy). And then you start spotting random symptoms which are almost certainly just nothing but could be Something Fairly Serious… if combined with a whole bunch of symptoms you don’t have. I know too much not to think about it all; and not enough to know for certain that I’m being seriously daft.
And then I think about the level of hypochondria in intelligent friends who do completely unconnected degrees – English, Engineering, Maths, Philosophy, Chemistry – and I realise that actually, I could be so much more concerned about so many more illnesses. I must have some reasonable level of knowledge after all. And at least I don’t know enough about helicopters to convince myself that they’re suddenly going to remember that according to Physics they have no good reason to stay in the air, and just land on my head.