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Your Family Health History

Article date: November 30, 2007

Wrap It Up Over the Holidays

Think back for a minute on all the family get-togethers you have attended over the years, and the countless heartfelt conversations that have taken place. On these special occasions, it is just you and your loved ones tackling life's most compelling topics -- like how someone who isn't a complete idiot would have called that play last night. How you can tell that new grandbaby is definitely a genius. How the weather today just isn't like the weather when you were little. How you can have a million channels on cable and still not have anything worth watching.

And repeat.

That's a pretty limited menu of topics to work with, so if you find yourself at a loss for things to talk at your family holiday gathering, the US Surgeon General's Office suggests you spice things up by discussing your family's medical histories. Really!

The Importance of Family Health History

The most common, most deadly diseases facing Americans tend to run in families -- heart disease, stroke, diabetes, cancer. In fact, a family history of cancer is considered to be an important risk factor for several forms of the disease, including breast, colon, prostate, and ovarian cancers, according to Heather Spencer Feigelson, PhD, MPH, an American Cancer Society epidemiologist specializing in genetics. By knowing that you have such a history, you can take steps to better protect yourself from the risk you face.

"Keeping an accurate record of family medical history, just like keeping an accurate record of current prescription medications, can be an important … prevention strategy," Feigelson says.

The problem, however, is that most of us don't keep such records. A government study in 2004 found that just 30% of people actively track their health history, even though 96% of all people say it is important for their health to do so. The findings, published in Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (Vol. 53, No.44: 1044-1047), were based on a survey of more than 4,000 US adults.

To bring attention to the matter, the Surgeon General in 2004 established National Family History Day, to be observed each year on Thanksgiving Day. The choice of Thanksgiving was intended to encourage talk of family health history at holiday gatherings. To assist in recording the information, the US Department of Health and Human Services has developed a free, online tool for families to use.

'My Family Health Portrait'

The tool, called "My Family Health Portrait," allows English-language and Spanish-language users to enter personal medical information and medical histories about their parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, siblings, and children. Different fields capture such information as disease type (such as breast, ovarian, colon, or some other specific type of cancer) and the age at which a relative became ill. The tool also creates a visual "family tree" that merges health information from different relatives and gives you a visual way to see if any health conditions appear to move from generation to generation. If you do see such a pattern, it's time to talk to your family doctor.

Forewarned, Forearmed

"Any family history that concerns you should be discussed with your doctor," Feigelson says, "because it may influence the type and frequency of screening exams or the appropriate use of other prevention strategies."

Such strategies may include a more aggressive schedule of cancer screening options such as mammograms, MRI scans, or breast ultrasounds for women with a family history of breast cancer, for instance. Men with a strong family history of prostate cancer might opt to start PSA testing at a younger age than normally recommended.

And while we would all do well to stop smoking, eat healthier, exercise more, and achieve a healthy body weight, people with a family history of cancer have even more reason to take good care of their bodies. More evidence emerges every year connecting diet and fitness to cancer -- prevention and risk.

Something for the Kids

Just because it is called a Family Health History, don't make the mistake of thinking it's all about the dearly departed, or that it only involves looking backward. The other key word to consider is Family. In the spirit of the holidays, we would do well to remember that in this, as in so many other things, it is not all about me, me, me.

To stress the point, the Surgeon General's Office has recently expanded its Family History Initiative to include children and to incorporate their health information into the Family Health Portrait tool. As their family grows, parents are encouraged to make note of birth defects, developmental disorders, prenatal infections, or other health conditions that might one day expose their children to a greater risk of cancer in the future.


Reviewed by: Members of the ACS Medical Content Staff

ACS News Center stories are provided as a source of cancer-related news and are not intended to be used as press releases.

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