Why You Need to Discuss Your Family Health History at Thanksgiving

November 22, 2016 7:00 AM

Pass the turkey, the pumpkin pie — and your medical history? The upcoming holiday provides an unlikely but ideal time to review such information.

A family discussing their family's medical history at Thanksgiving

There is no better time to talk about your family’s health history than when your loved ones are sitting around the table together.

That’s the idea behind the U.S. surgeon general’s declaration of Thanksgiving Day as National Family Health History Day. Since the campaign started in 2004, Americans have been encouraged to use the holiday as a time to talk about — and record — any health problems, especially those that seem to run in their families.

Sharing this information among as many people as possible could save someone’s life.

Family history, after all, is one of the main factors used to determine an individual’s risk for developing diseases, such as cancer. Many patients do not know that they are at risk before talking with a family member.

For example, a diagnosis of breast cancer, colon cancer or even colon polyps in a close relative can have an impact on the age to start screening. Furthermore, in families with multiple individuals affected with breast cancer, colon cancer, ovarian cancer, and/or uterine cancer, there is a chance that an inherited gene mutation may be playing a role.

Hereditary cancer syndromes, which make up fewer than 5 percent of cancers, can significantly increase a person’s risk for developing cancer. Armed with the knowledge of this type of background information, physicians can intervene by screening patients earlier and more frequently in an effort to prevent or minimize their cancer risk.

Finding out family health history can be a challenge for some people, especially when relatives are deceased or unwilling to share. For people who are adopted, this task presents an even bigger challenge.

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While family history is helpful to know, it is only one part of your total health picture.

Here, though, are easy suggestions to get started. 

6 ways to talk about family health history at Thanksgiving  

Give a heads-up. Mail, email or text a note ahead of time to prepare everyone on what to expect. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention created this Health-e-Card to break the ice.

Go first. Anyone can start the conversation, so why not you? The surgeon general recommends answering and asking the following questions:

  • Do you have any chronic illnesses, such as heart disease, high blood pressure or diabetes?

  • Have you had any other serious illnesses, such as cancer or stroke?

  • How old were you when you developed these illnesses?

  • Have you or your partner had any difficulties with pregnancies?

  • Have you or anyone in the family suffered from mental illness such as anxiety, clinical depression or bipolar disorder?

  • What medications are you currently taking?

Include everyone. Be sure to talk with all of your blood relatives: parents, siblings, children, grandparents, cousins, aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews and half-siblings.

You can also ask questions about other relatives, both living and deceased, such as:

  • What is our family’s ancestry? What country(-ies) did we come from?

  • Has anyone in the family had learning or developmental disabilities?

  • What illnesses did our late grandparents have?

  • How old were they when they died?

  • What caused their deaths?

Take notes. Offer to be the family historian by recording the information shared at the table. Some family members may not feel comfortable sharing their health information. You can reassure them that any information they provide will be helpful. Print this document to record what you find out.

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Compile and organize. The surgeon general’s My Family Health Portrait is one of several useful online tools available to help families record, update and share health information with one another and their providers.

Share with others. Information collected at the family table can be reviewed by those who are present and sent to those who live out of town. Online tools allow you to add additional information as you receive it. You can then print out a customized family tree and share it with relatives and providers.