How to Talk about Your Family’s Medical History

Let’s face it, asking your family members about their health history isn’t easy. It’s awkward to ask questions, and sometimes nearly impossible if you have limited contact with individuals or they have passed.

The truth of the matter is that your family medical history can give your health care providers insight as to what diseases you may have an increased risk to develop, as well as assist in family planning. It can allow you to become more proactive in your health care so that you’re undergoing more frequent screenings or taking risk-reducing measures.

The U.S. Surgeon General declared Thanksgiving as National Family History Day in 2004 to as an initiative to get families talking. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reports that 96% of Americans believe that family history is important, however only a third of those individuals actually have tried to collect and document it.

As Thanksgiving approaches, start thinking about what kind of family history questions you might have. Here are some tips and tools to help make your Thanksgiving/Family History Day productive:

1. Don’t re-invent the wheel.

Use online tools and resources that already exist to help you gather information. Start with the following:

2. Talk as a family together.

It’s important for each family member to be aware of the family history.

3. Make sure you document the new information you learn.

Once people in the family move away or pass, information is often lost. Use a family tree like this one to help you document and save important information.

4. Try to be detailed in your documentation, if possible.

The online resources/tools listed above give examples of what type of information you should document, but here’s a general rule of thumb as to what pieces of information you should document:

  • Specific diagnosis name
  • Age of diagnosis
  • Relative’s relationship to you
  • Age of death
  • Cause of death

5. Regularly update your information.

Don’t forget to talk to your health care providers if you learn something new.

It isn’t easy starting a conversation about family medical history at the dinner table. If you prepare, and are ready with thoughtful questions, you might be surprised with what you learn.

Sarah AdelspergerSarah Adelsperger, MS, LCGC, is a board-certified genetic counselor specializing in cancer. Sarah joined Kelly Morse, MS, LCGC, in the Cancer Genetics Program in May 2015 at ProMedica Cancer Institute–the only program in Northwest Ohio and Southeast Michigan with two licensed and board-certified genetics counselors specializing in cancer genetics.