Your Family History

The Importance of Knowing Your Family Health History

According to a U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) survey, 96% of Americans believe that knowing their family health history is important. Yet only one-third of Americans have ever gathered their own family health history (also called family medical history).

Why a family health history is important

Your family tree is a visual representation of the members of your family and how they are related. Creating a family health history involves gathering health information for each person on your family tree to help your doctor assess if there are diseases that appear in multiple generations and how this may affect your risk.

Genetic research may someday make it possible to accurately predict a person's risk for cancer; however, until then, a family's health history may offer the best look into the future. That's because your family health history often reflects more than your family's shared genes, but also other shared risk factors, including environment, behavior, and culture.

For the families of people with cancer, knowing their family health history can be an important step toward cancer prevention or early detection. Ideally, it will also help lower the risk for cancer if it prompts individuals to change behaviors that have a negative impact on health, such as smoking. Similarly, it will prompt individuals to adopt healthier lifestyle habits, such as regularly exercising and eating a balanced diet. It's important to note, although having a risk factor (anything that increases a person's chance of developing a disease) for cancer does not guarantee that a person will develop cancer, it does mean that a person should be more aware of his or her risk.

Be open with your family

If you've been diagnosed with cancer, talking about your personal health history with family members is a way to help them understand the need for various screening tests, such as mammograms for breast cancer or colonoscopies for colorectal cancer, as well as other strategies for early diagnosis or prevention.

Share with your family specific information about your treatments, the medications you're taking, the names and specialties of your doctors, and the names of the medical centers where you receive care. In the event of a medical emergency, this information may be crucial for the doctors who treat you. In the same way, learning about your relatives' health conditions may yield some information that will help in your own medical care.

How to take a family health history

Whichever tool you use, the most useful family health histories are those that are as detailed and accurate as possible. And it's not just parents and siblings whose health history is important to you. The health history of children, grandparents, aunts, uncles, nieces, and nephews are also important.

For families of people with cancer, a family health history typically covers:

  • At least three generations, as inheritance patterns for adult-onset cancer are more identifiable over time
  • Health information on maternal and paternal relatives, as hereditary cancer syndromes can be inherited from your mother or father
  • Race and ethnicity information for both sides of your family, as some cancer gene mutations (changes) occur more frequently in certain ethnic groups
  • Information about other medical conditions for each person, as even those conditions that seem unrelated may provide some information about cancer susceptibility or other potential health risks

For each person who has or had cancer, a personal health history should include the following information:

  • Date of birth
  • Date and cause of death (if applicable)
  • Type and location of each cancer (medical records, especially pathology reports, can be extremely helpful in determining the possibility of a hereditary cancer risk)
  • Age of diagnosis for each cancer
  • The facility where the cancer was diagnosed and treated
  • History of other medical problems

Incomplete or inaccessible family health histories

If you are not able to gather a complete family health history, for example, if you don't know all of your blood relatives, or if they are unreachable or have passed away, you may be able to find additional details through state government offices or genealogy resources. For people who were adopted, the National Adoption Information Clearinghouse may be able to help access family medical information from birth parents.

Sharing your history

Once you have collected your family health history, it is important to share it with your doctors. They will use this information to assess your risk for various diseases. That, in turn, may help them make recommendations for screening tests to detect disease or lifestyle changes that might help prevent disease.

Share the health history with your children as well, as they can benefit from the information in the same way that you can. Also, share information about your own health and your children's health with other relatives to help them maintain an accurate family health history of their own.

Genetic Testing

In addition to identifying possible lifestyle risk factors for disease, such as smoking or lack of exercise, the family health history may also be used to identify the potential need for genetic testing, which involves the analysis of human genetic make-up (DNA, RNA, chromosomes, and proteins) to predict the risk of disease, identify carriers of disease, and diagnose disease or determine the likely course of a disease.

At the most basic level, the factors suggesting inherited cancer risk include the following:

  • Multiple cancers in close relatives, particularly in multiple generations. Clustering of the same type of cancer in close relatives may indicate an inherited cancer risk.
  • Unusually early age of cancer onset (younger than 50 years for adult-onset cancers)
  • Multiple cancers in a single individual

A family health history that includes some of these risk factors may indicate an increased cancer risk for family members. The best way to use the information gathered is to take the information to your doctors and let them guide you in making decisions about screening and other ways to reduce your risk.

A word about perceived risk

As important as a family health history may be for early detection and treatment of cancer, it also may cause people to perceive their risk of developing cancer to be greater or less than their actual statistical risk; therefore, in all cases, it is important to discuss your individual level of risk with your doctor.

F. Martin

"Today, we continue to put all our trust in Dr. Carabulea, a doctor on the cutting edge of his medical field combined with the gentle demeanor of a family physician that is hard to find these days."