Changing cancer’s course: How genetic science gave 3 All-American athletes a future
Feb 10, 2023, 11:12 AM
LEHI, Utah – There’s a pretty good chance what the Thompson triplets have accomplished in the same calendar year has never been done before: all three are collegiate all-Americans.
Sage Thompson achieved that status on the bars as a gymnast for the Red Rocks at the University of Utah.
Creed and Davin Thompson earned All-American titles on the cross-country course at Brigham Young University.
“You’re always just competing, trying to be the best,” Creed said.
His brother Davin agreed.
“I feel like the reason I’m good is because I work harder than everyone else,” he said.
Three All-Americans. Same last name. Same parents. And the same double helix strands of the same DNA.
“I probably got a lot (of athleticism) from my dad,” Creed said.
“And luckily I got my mom’s genetics in that,” Sage was quick to answer.
While they’ll gladly thank their parents, Jenni and Bryce Thompson, for the outstanding genetics, truth be told, the most important gene in this family is the one gene they were hoping to never pass along.
“(Bryce) knew that there had been a suspicious amount of cancer in his family,” Jenni said. “So, that right there is what, you know, prompted us all to go in and be tested.”
The results of those tests, years before the triplets were born, threw them into the world of Li-Fraumeni syndrome. And the effect it could have is devastating.
“We call it a 100% risk. I’ve used the analogy of a ticking time bomb before with this disease,” said Dr. Luke Maese, a hematology-oncology specialist at Huntsman Cancer Institute. He has studied Li-Fraumeni syndrome for years.
In short, it’s a hereditary genetic disorder that increases the risk of cancer. And if you get the mutated gene, the likelihood of getting cancer at a young age increases dramatically.
“By age 20, you have a 20% risk of cancer, which is astronomically high,” said Maese. “By age 30, a 50% risk.”
And by age 60, cancer is practically guaranteed.
Bryce tested positive.
That news came six weeks after the birth of their first son, Kade, giving him a 50-50 shot the unwanted gene was passed along to him.
“If he had an earache, or if he like, grabbed his head or his leg hurt,” Jenni said, “I just right away, I was like, ‘He has cancer.’”
Bryce and Jenni could not live in the unknown, so another test was run, this time on their son, Kade.
With tears in her eyes, Jenni recalled the day they got the results.
“I was shaking so bad. I just had my head in my lap and was grabbing my hair because I couldn’t handle the thought of him being positive. And I remember Vicki, the genetic counselor, just like put her hand on my knee and said, ‘It’s going to be good news today.’ Those were her exact words. And that was the best day of my life.”
Their boy was lucky. But over the years, many in the extended Thompson family were not.
Brothers, sisters, nieces and nephews: 24 have been diagnosed or likely had the disorder. Eleven of those have been diagnosed with cancer. Ten have died of the disease.
If Bryce and Jenni were to fulfill their dream of having more kids, they decided there would have to be another way.
“I will not do this to my children and knowingly pass this on,” Jenni said.
So, they rolled the dice on a research study using in vitro fertilization, and something called pre-implantation genetic diagnosis. It’s a procedure done in the lab, where each of the embryos is tested.
The good ones stay. And in this case, the ones carrying Bryce’s mutated gene were eliminated.
“They took each embryo and grew it to eight cells,” Jenni explained. “So, there were only four that they knew for sure did not have Li-Fraumeni and six they knew for sure did.”
Three of the four genetically sound embryos were implanted. Two of them took. One of those split. The result: triplets.
Genetically healthy, non-Li-Fraumeni triplets.
“They got all the good stuff. And luckily, they didn’t inherit any of the tragic stuff,” Jenni said with a smile on her face.
She’s right – the tests have confirmed it. Li-Fraumeni syndrome is no longer a part of their branch of the family tree. It now stops with Bryce, which has turned into the very best and the very worst part of their story.
“I don’t think I like grasped the situation fully when it was happening,” said Davin, describing his emotions at 11 years old.
“I feel like I always knew my dad was going to get cancer eventually in life,” Creed added.
Twelve years after their father, Bryce, tested positive for Li-Fraumeni syndrome, their greatest fear was realized. The cancer diagnosis came.
“When you have little kids and the thought of like, them going through the pain of losing their dad, it’s like, I don’t know,” said Jenni. “I can’t think of many worse things.”
For more than a decade after learning he carried the gene, Bryce gave his family everything a loving husband and father could.
He gave them his heart.
“When I gave him a hug,” said Davin, “I was just like, engulfed in his warm embrace.”
He gave them his attention, and he gave them his fight.
“When I’m out there (running),” Creed said, “I think about how bad my dad was probably hurting.”
“My dad fought literally till the end,” remembered Sage. “He shouldn’t have been able to fight that long. But he did.”
Davin said his father’s fight pushes him physically to be better. “It just makes me think of my dad and how tough he was for eight months battling his battle.”
And while these kids will always remember their dad for what he gave, the reality is, their lives have forever been changed because of the one gene he left behind.
“Our future generations will always be grateful for that,” Davin said, “because we’ll be able to live normal lives that a lot of my (extended) family won’t.”