At Thanksgiving, Take Time to Collect Family Medical History

Waiting until there's a cancer diagnosis or other crisis is not the time to be taking the family's medical history. Testing companies and genetic counselors encourage families to share information when they are all in one place.

Gathering with extended family for Thanksgiving dinner offers the opportunity to see what everyone has in common—and chances are, it’s more than blue eyes, curly hair, or a fondness for grandma’s pie.

As precision medicine expands, there’s an awareness that patients often know too little about their family medical history—and the time to start gathering that information shouldn’t be when something’s gone wrong. Increasingly, groups that specialize in genetic testing and counseling are encouraging the public to use Thanksgiving as a time to share that information, when multiple generations of family are all in one place.

What information is important? And how should it be gathered?

The National Society of Genetic Counselors has an online family health history tool, which recommends starting with immediate family and working outward to aunts and uncles, grandparents and cousins. NSGC recommends verifying medical information whenever possible, through obituaries, military records, or yearbooks, which can show what people looked like or have references to people’s physical traits. Medical records will require a request in writing.

Building a family tree, or “pedigree,” is also helpful. The genetic counselors say the pedigree should include the dates of birth and death including the cause, as well as any medical problems—and when those problems began. A heart attack that strikes at age 45 is not the same as once that arrives at 85, for example. Wherever possible, include approximate weight, health habits and smoking status.

In addition to records of physical and mental health problems, write down a relative’s country of origin, because some health problems occur more frequently in certain ethnic groups.

NSGC’s tool offers a list of health conditions ask about, but it also lists other online resources:

  • My Family Health Portrait from the Surgeon General
  • American Medical Association Adult Family History
  • March of Dimes History Form

As Americans live longer, more will get cancer, so discussing hereditary cancer is important, too. Gene mutations passed from parent to child can increase one’s cancer risk. For women, there can be the risk of inheriting a mutation for breast or ovarian cancer from the father’s side of the family without realizing it. Because today’s families are smaller, a mutation may not be apparent in each generation.

Testing companies have also joined the cause of promoting Thanksgiving as a time to share family history. Myriad Genetics earlier this month launched a hereditary cancer quiz for use during the holiday season.

Both the testing company and the National Society of Genetic Counselors encouraged those who gather new information during the Thanksgiving holiday to share it with their healthcare providers as soon as possible.