From Elizabeth Sorosiak, MSN, APRN, FNP-C, advanced practice provider at OHC

July 11, 2022

More than half of Americans are at an increased risk of cancer, diabetes, or heart disease because they have close relatives with one or more of these diseases, according to the Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion (ODPHP). Because family members share genes, are exposed to similar environments, and often have similar behaviors, like exercise and dietary habits, they often develop the same conditions or chronic diseases. My OHC colleagues and I urge you to obtain a family health history to arm yourself with information that will help you take steps toward disease prevention.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), a family health history is a record of the diseases and health conditions in your family. Healthcare providers frequently request both your personal and family health history to make informed decisions about your care and plan for early detection. When they refer to family health history, they are referring to that of your parents, siblings, half-siblings, children, grandparents, aunts/uncles, nieces/nephews, and cousins.

While it may seem time-consuming and labor-intensive to obtain this information, having this knowledge can save your life. For example, if you have a close family member who was diagnosed with colon cancer before the age of 50, your doctor may recommend more frequent screening with colonoscopy than those at average risk for the disease. A colonoscopy can prevent cancer as it allows the doctor to remove polyps, or growths that can become cancerous, during the procedure.

Importance of Knowing Your Family Health History

While we cannot control our genes, there are many things we can be mindful of and lifestyle changes we can implement to help prevent disease. Knowing your family health history and sharing it with your healthcare providers helps both of you discuss:

  • Genetic testing recommendations to clarify your risk.
  • Lifestyle changes like avoiding tobacco products, improving your diet, or starting an exercise regimen.
  • Early warning signs of disease.
  • A schedule of regular checkups and screenings to promote early detection. Early diagnosis typically results in better health outcomes in the long run.

Getting Started

If you are not already aware of your family health history, here are some tips for getting started:

  • Use family gatherings to start the conversation. There might be an older relative who is a “family historian” with a wealth of information. Record conversations on tape or video. Recognize that some may not want to discuss this subject and respect their wishes.
  • Seek out public records like death certificates or obituaries. Some healthcare facilities will release health records to a decedent’s personal representative.
  • Talk to family members on both your mother’s and father’s side of the family. When Katie Hernandez was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 42 in 2017, she questioned doctors if there was a possible genetic cause as her paternal aunt died of ovarian cancer at age 53. Doctors incorrectly told her that a link was not possible as the aunt was on her father’s side of the family, but Katie searched until she found a breast surgeon who ordered genetic testing and discovered a genetic link (read Katie’s story on page six of OHC’s current newsletter).

Health Information to Record

Important health history information to gather about your close family members includes:

  • Diagnosis with a serious illness or chronic health condition like cancer, heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, or high cholesterol
  • Age at onset of the condition and age at death, if applicable
  • Birth defects or developmental problems
  • Mental health issues
  • Ethnicity
  • Lifestyle information (ie. smoking history, exposure to harmful substances like asbestos)

Once you have gathered your family health history, record it in a tool like My Family Health Portrait provided by the Surgeon General: https://bit.ly/39GTcoM. This web-based platform allows you to save, print, and share the history with others. Remember to keep information up to date as it is valuable for future generations.

If you are estranged from family or adopted, direct-to-consumer (DTC) genomics companies like 23andMe, genetic testing, and ancestry research can help provide a connection to unknown relatives. Adoption agencies might provide records. Discuss your situation with your healthcare provider who may recommend earlier or more frequent preventative care screening.

OHC’s cancer experts have several resources on cancer prevention and our cancer genetic specialists offer in-depth education, risk assessment, consultation, and genetic testing for individuals with a significant personal and/or family history of cancer through our Genetic Risk Evaluation and Testing Program (GREAT). You do not have to be an existing patient to request a consultation. For more information or to request an appointment, call 1-888-649-4800 or visit ohcare.com.

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