Family gatherings – a prime opportunity to create a family health history

thanksgivingA few years ago my cousin posted on our family Facebook page that his daughter had been diagnosed with a bone disorder. He asked if anyone else in our family had experienced a similar problem. What happened next was shocking to me. At least six of my other cousins said they had the same disorder. I had no idea! With 54 first cousins spread across the United States, (not to mention brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles and grandparents) it has become harder to keep up with all the changes in my family members’ lives. I am not alone, as many families struggle to stay in contact these days. And perhaps it’s time to think of creating a family health history!

With the coming of the holiday season, many will be going to family gatherings and reconnecting with family they do not see very often. This is a great opportunity to keep updated on everyone’ lives. It can also be an opportunity to swap information about the medical issues in the family. As a genetics professional, I have become increasingly aware of how helpful it can be when people have information about their family’s medical issues. At times, information about a family’s medical history can lead to a life-changing (or even life-saving) diagnosis.

Many would agree that having information about their family’s medical history is good, but not all of them know how to go about gathering that information. There are several ways, but one involves using an online tool called My Family Health Portrait. This website is provided by the Office of the Surgeon General and can assist you in collecting family health information. It allows you to transfer that information to a secure, non-government, privacy guaranteed website so you can save the information, go back and update information in the future, or send a password-protected link to family members so they can use it to update their own health information.

Whether you use My Family Health Portrait, or gather the information a different way, there are a few key pieces of information to collect if your family has a history of cancer:

  • who had cancer
  • what type of cancer, or what organ did the cancer start in
  • what age were they when they were diagnosed with that cancer (exact or approximate age)
  • did anyone have multiple cancer diagnoses
  • has anyone had genetic testing?

Once you have gathered that information, you can share it with your doctor to see if it would be beneficial to see a genetic counselor, or you can contact a genetic counselor in your area directly to discuss your family history. You can find a genetic counselor near you by going to www.nsgc.org.

When might you have this conversation with your family? Maybe it will be during football commercial breaks. Maybe it will be while standing in one of those eternal lines on Black Friday. Maybe it will be around the kitchen table. Maybe it will be online while your family members are hundreds of miles away. Wherever and however you do it, being with family provides a great opportunity to collect medical information about family. It could be information that one day helps doctors keep you healthy.


genetic testing


The University of Michigan Cancer Genetics Program provides counseling for people with a personal or family history of cancers that may have genetic links. If a link is confirmed, our specialized physician and genetic counselors will develop a plan for additional screening or lifestyle changes to help reduce cancer risk.


CCC 25 years button150x150The University of Michigan Comprehensive Cancer Center’s 1,000 doctors, nurses, care givers and researchers are united by one thought: to deliver the highest quality, compassionate care while working to conquer cancer through innovation and collaboration. The center is among the top-ranked national cancer programs, and #1 in Michigan for cancer patient care. Seventeen multidisciplinary clinics offer one-stop access to teams of specialists for personalized treatment plans, part of the ideal patient care experience. Patients also benefit through access to promising new cancer therapies.