The healthiest thing you can add to your holidays isn’t low-calorie pumpkin pie — it’s an in-depth look at your family history of cancer.
Knowing the answers to key questions provides insight you and your physician can use to determine if you’re a candidate for genetic testing, more frequent screenings and preventive options.
And there’s no better time to start getting answers than the holidays, when you see your long-lost Uncle Steve for the first time in years.
“In some families, talking about health may come easily,” said Kristen Rasmussen, a genetic counselor in Marshfield Clinic’s Medical Genetics Department. “Other families might be more reserved. However, when family members know their medical history may help younger generations avoid going through the same thing, it often helps them see the value in sharing.”
Why know my family history?
A thorough family history is the first step needed to shed light on if you’re at greater risk for certain cancers.
For some genetically-linked cancers, health care providers use the information gathered to guide treatment and screening.
For instance, if you have a higher risk for breast cancer because of family or personal history, your doctor may recommend you get a breast MRI in addition to a mammogram. Similarly, if you have a family history of colon cancer, your doctor may recommend screening at a younger age and more frequently.
Ask these family history questions:
- How old was each family member when diagnosed with cancer? Cancer at a young age is a red flag that a genetic connection may exist.
- Have the same cancers appeared in more than one generation of your family?
- Where in the body did the cancer start? Cancer can spread, but the only genetic connection is to where the cancer originated. For example, maybe someone had lung cancer but the cancer started in the prostate.
- Have family members had genetic testing? It’s vital to get specifics from family members. Ask for a copy of the test report and take it to your doctor.
Share your health history
If you’ve had cancer, let your relatives know what you can about it, including where it started. Sometimes people don’t realize some cancers that sound very similar are different. For example, ovarian and uterine cancers are different.
If you’ve had genetic testing, be sure to share your detailed test report with ALL family members. That means sharing not only with your kids but your third cousin, too. If you’re related by blood, you’re connected by genes.
“A gene is like an instruction manual,” Rasmussen said. “You could have a typo on page 2 or you could be missing a whole page. That mistake will be duplicated in family members carrying the same genes. If we know a family member’s detailed history, it helps us pinpoint the potential cancer risks sooner and leads to more cost-effective testing with more accurate results.”
Small families, unknown histories
If your family is small, you’re adopted, or if you just have missing “branches” in your family tree, think about what you can do moving forward.
Write down your own medical history, and share it with your kids and grandkids. Even if your family roots are unknown, some day your children likely will appreciate knowing your medical history.