From marriage proposals to politics, many topics are discussed around the holiday dinner table. This year, make sure to talk with your loved ones about your family health history to help better understand your unique health risks.
The holiday season is approaching. As you get together with loved ones — either in-person or virtually, in accordance with your area’s COVID-19 restrictions — the conversations are sure to flow. Relatives want updates on all that has happened in your life this year. But, as you share news about new engagements, job opportunities, and other activities, be sure to make time for a somewhat unusual, but incredibly important topic: your family health history.
What is Your Family Health History?
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) defines family health history as a record of the diseases and health conditions in your family. Your family health history can be affected not only by the genes (DNA) you share with family members, but also by any lifestyle behaviors (e.g., nutrition and exercise) and environmental exposures that you have in common.1
Many people have a family health history of at least one chronic disease. Some of the most common conditions that can appear in a family health history include diabetes, heart disease, and cancer. If one or more of your closest family members — such as your parents or siblings — is diagnosed with a chronic disease, you are at a greater risk of developing the disease as well.1 Discussing your family health history with loved ones can give you a clearer picture of your own health risks.
Preparing Yourself for the Conversation
Diving into your family health history over the holidays might seem awkward at first, but a little preparation can help you get the conversation started.
First, before speaking with anyone, make a list of the relatives you need to include in your family health history, starting with your parents, siblings, and children. You might also benefit from speaking with grandparents, aunts and uncles, and nieces and nephews.2
Afterwards, think about the questions you want to ask. The information that will be most helpful to you and your health care provider includes the specific conditions that have impacted your loved ones, as well as when those conditions were first diagnosed.2
While speaking with your relatives, don’t forget to write down the information they share. A written record that you can regularly update will be valuable in helping your health care provider determine which health screenings are most appropriate for you and what steps you can take to live your healthiest life.2 The National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI) and the U.S. Surgeon General’s Family History Initiative offer a free, web-based tool called My Family Health Portrait, which you can use to help record your family health history.
Your Family Health History and Your Cancer Risk
Genomics is the study of a complete set of genetic material (e.g., your genes or DNA). Studying DNA is critical in cancer research, as cancer develops when DNA is damaged or changed. Some of the DNA changes that cause cancer are inherited.3 Knowing which cancers have affected your family members is crucial to understanding your own risk for developing similar conditions in the future.
If your family health history shows that a number of your close relatives have been diagnosed with certain cancers, your health care provider might recommend genetic testing to help gauge your individual risk for developing the disease. To learn more about the benefits of genetic testing, check out this NFCR blog post.
Interestingly, your genes not only provide clues about what type(s) of cancer you might be at risk for developing, but also which treatments might work best should you receive a cancer diagnosis. In recent years, researchers have shifted from an organ-focused approach to cancer treatments to a gene-focused approach, developing new therapeutics that can be tailored to the individual patient — also known as precision medicine.3
NFCR continues to distinguish itself from other organizations by emphasizing long-term, transformative research that aims to move people towards cancer genomics. Currently, genomics research is part of the work being conducted by every scientist funded by NFCR. Learn more about our scientists and their current research endeavors here.
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1 Family Health History: The Basics. (2019, October 03). Retrieved November 13, 2020, from https://www.cdc.gov/genomics/famhistory/famhist_basics.htm
2 Take Time During the Holidays to Learn Your Family Health History. (2019, November 22). Retrieved November 13, 2020, from https://www.nmhealth.org/news/blog/2019/11/?view=818
3 Areas of Focus: Genomics – National Foundation for Cancer Research. (2018, November 15). Retrieved November 13, 2020, from https://www.nfcr.org/research-programs/research-focus-areas/genomics