Why You Need to Know Your Family's Medical History

The number of ties and links regarding health and medical information between family members is much higher and stronger than you may think. Researchers now consider genetics to influence the way you react to environmental risks both physiologically and emotionally. Although you are an individual, you are the combination of a thousand puzzle pieces from generations before you. Wouldn’t you want to know which of those pieces could cause you harm?


Manager of Genetics Counseling at Cancer Treatment Centers of America, Eric Fowler, MS, stresses it’s not enough to know if a family member was diagnosed with cancer.

“For example, if it is a cancer diagnosis, an individual should not only know the age at which he or she was diagnosed, but also from which organ or tissue the cancer originated,” Fowler said.

He explained the same goes for other conditions like diabetes. Do you know which type? The more you can tell your physician, the better they can help you prevent the same diagnosis. These prevention methods reflect in lifestyle, diet and screenings that you may not otherwise receive.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggest gathering this information if you’re planning a family. You can find out if you or your partner are carriers of certain conditions like Tay-Sachs, cystic fibrosis or other syndromes. Genetic testing is offered during the first trimester of pregnancy as well. Knowing what your family’s background is can help you decide if you should consider the testing.

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When it comes to screening, there are so many styles of tests: blood work, pap smears (how often should you really have one?), mammograms (try a self-breast exam), colonoscopies and more. If there is history of any cancers or conditions in your family, you want to be aware of these screenings and know where you can have them completed. Click here for nine life-saving exams you should consider.

Taking the example of colorectal cancer (cancer of the colon), critical care physician and surgeon at the University of Florida, Akram Alashari, MD, recommends screening before age 50, whereas people with average risk wait until after 50. Any abnormal results should be followed up on by a specialist who may recommend further testing. Otherwise, the screenings will continue at specific intervals throughout the person’s life.


Once you establish the diagnoses, ages, affected tissues, treatments and lifestyles of family members, you are in the perfect position to deflect the same fate. This information needs to come from a conversation. Here are some questions you can ask your family members:

  • Do you have any chronic diseases like heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure or high cholesterol?
  • Have you or any of your other family members been diagnosed with cancer or experienced a stroke? What type of cancer or stroke, and what age did this occur?
  • Do you use tobacco, drink alcohol in excess, exercise, eat well?
  • Do you have a history of miscarriages, infertility or stillbirths?

If you feel like any of these questions are too uncomfortable to ask, you can have them fill out a form and send it directly to your physician so you never see it. Again, this should be a conversation and you can share the purpose of it: to lead healthy lives. You can explore death certificates (public) and medical records of the deceased (confidential, but can be released by authorized representative or accessed by person paying the bills).

Meanwhile, be mindful in your lifestyle: eat well, take your vitamins, exercise and maintain an open line of communication with your doctor.

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