Healthy Thanksgiving: Time to Talk About Family Health History

While the holidays aren’t the only time of year to talk to your family, they are a great opportunity to discuss the health history of many family members at once. Knowing your family history can help you better understand your own health and alert you if you are at greater risk of developing cancer or other serious diseases. For individuals with a family history of certain diseases, it may be recommended to begin getting screened before the normally recommended age, which is why it’s important to talk with your primary care provider if you learn that you have a family history of cancer, especially through close relatives.

If you have the opportunity this holiday season, talk with your family members about the history of illness in your family. It may not be an easy conversation to start, but there are many ways that you can respectfully discuss health. Before your family gathering, think through your family tree and come up with questions. Examples of questions to start with might include:

  • Where were you born and raised?
  • Did you or any of your siblings have any health problems? When did they start?
  • Did either of your parents take medicine on a regular basis? If so, for what?
  • Has your family lived anywhere that caused them health problems?
  • Has anyone had problems in pregnancy or childbirth?
  • Are there any diseases that “run in the family?”

Pay attention to how early someone was diagnosed and if there is a pattern throughout the family of any illnesses. It’s also important to take lifestyle and location into account: did they smoke or consume large amounts of alcohol? Did they live somewhere that would’ve contributed to poor health? Keep in mind that health may be a sensitive subject for some loved ones and respect their boundaries if they don’t want to discuss it.

Talk to your doctor about what you discover through these discussions. Depending on variables such as the form of illness, which family member(s) was diagnosed and at what age, the patient may be referred to genetic counseling services. Genetic counselors also determine the most appropriate genetic test(s) and the most informative approach to genetic testing for patients and their families. If a patient undergoes genetic testing, genetic counselors then help interpret the results, and help them and their physicians understand and apply genetic test results to medical management decisions.

Cone Health Cancer Center has a genetic counseling clinic dedicated to identifying individuals and families in the community with heritable cancer susceptibility to promote cancer-risk assessment and awareness, early cancer detection and cancer prevention. Some of the conditions that genetic counselors see include uterine, colon, breast, ovarian and rare cancers. The specialists at Cone Health also see pulmonary fibrosis patients. To learn more about Cone Health’s genetic counseling services, visit

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