Why you should know your family medical history

November 22, 2017 | by Samir Undevia, MD

It’s not always about who you know, it’s about what you know too. What do you know about your own family, for instance?

You know you share things in common, like your ancestors. But knowing about your family is more than just knowing whether you have Irish, German or Italian in your blood. Knowing your family’s medical history can tell you a lot about your own health.

Your family history is one of the strongest influences that determine your risk of developing heart disease, stroke, diabetes and cancer. Even though you cannot change your genetic makeup, knowing your family history can help you reduce your risk of developing health problems down the line, through screenings and other preventive measures.

Thanks to continuing advancements in medical research, doctors are now able to understand a person’s risk for certain illnesses and conditions, and determine how likely these risks will be passed down from generation to generation. This is all done through genetic testing.

By working with a genetic counselor, genetic testing can help you estimate your chance of developing certain diseases, like cancer, in your lifetime. It does this by searching for specific changes or mutations in your genes. But it isn’t so simple. 

Like any test, you will need to know how to deal with the results. If you test positive for a cancer-related mutation like BRCA1 or BRAC2 for instance, you have some important decisions to make about what to do with the information. After you process the results on a personal level, you’ll need to decide if and how to share the information with your family members.

Sharing your results can help other members of your family make informed decisions about whether they should be tested or receive additional screening. Just make sure to share the information tactfully. Some family members may not react like you expect. They may be guarded or even angry, or find the topic of cancer too difficult to discuss. If you face this trouble, respect your family member’s feelings and keep a line of communication open with them. 

You may consider sharing your genetic information with:

  • Close family, like siblings or parents, preferably in a way in which you are available to answer any questions
  • Children older than 18 years old, so that they can make informed healthcare decisions
  • Extended family (grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins) perhaps through a letter with basic information about possible risks

Keep in mind that a positive test doesn’t always mean you will get a disease. A genetic test only tells you what might happen in the future. Likewise, a negative test does not mean you won’t get a disease. Your risks can change according to your lifestyle choices, such as smoking and drinking (which can lead to more than lung cancer).

As always, share your results with your primary care physician, too. Keeping an up-to-date health record is important for your doctor to know if and when to recommend additional screenings to keep you happy and healthy. 

Still trying to determine if genetic testing is right for you? Here are answers to common questions.


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