photo by: LMH Health
As many people prepare to spend time with family during the holidays, it could be a great opportunity to talk with your relatives about family health history. Although it might feel like an intrusive subject, knowing your family health history is an important part of understanding your own health.
“Knowing your family health history can allow you to gather information to keep you healthy,” said Dr. Jodie Barr, an oncologist at the LMH Health Cancer Center.
What is family health history?
Simply put, family health history is the knowledge of what medical conditions may exist within your family tree and could potentially be passed on to you.
“When a condition seems to run in the family, it means that there might be a genetic component, such as a gene mutation, that allows a condition to be shared amongst family members and inherited by future generations,” said. Dr. Benjamin Smith, a physician at LMH Health’s Internal Medicine Group.
A condition that “runs in the family” could exist among multiple generations of relatives or in just one relative, depending on the condition. Common conditions that patients should be aware of in their family’s health history include, but are not limited to, heart disease, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, heart conditions, and diabetes and cancer, according to Smith.
Looking specifically at cancer, common hereditary cancers include breast, ovarian, pancreatic metastatic, prostate and colon cancer, according to Dr. Jennifer Hawasli, breast surgeon at LMH Health’s Women’s Center.
“When it comes to cancer, sometimes a single family member with cancer, such as pancreatic or ovarian cancer, or cancer at a certain age, like breast cancer under 45 years old or colon cancer under 50, makes us concerned that there could be a genetic mutation causing cancer and could be passed on to other family members,” Hawasli said.
Jean Shepherd, a Lawrence community member and an LMH Health patient, received genetic testing to assess her risk for colon and breast cancer. Because her father had been diagnosed with both colon and breast cancer — with male breast cancer often denoting a genetic link to breast cancer — she decided it was best to get tested.
“When I decided to have genetic testing done at the LMH Health Cancer Center, I really was not concerned for myself,” Shepherd said. “I have three sons who also have children, and I wanted to be tested to be able to pass along the information to them.”
Why is it important?
According to Smith, family history can be one of the strongest influences in developing certain medical conditions. By checking your family health history for conditions you may be at risk for, you can take preventive measures to improve outcomes.
“If we suspect you inherited a condition from your family, we can change our strategy in screening and surgical management,” Barr said.
In the case of breast cancer, for example, tools are available that can calculate your lifetime risk of cancer, with family history being a big part of these calculations. A patient is considered to be at high risk for breast cancer if their assessed risk is over 20%, and these patients can take part in a high-risk screening program at LMH Health’s Women Center. If a high-risk mutation is found, which carries an 80% lifetime risk of breast cancer, a patient might want to consider preventive surgery or medication.
For other forms of cancer, you can schedule a genetic risk assessment with the LMH Health Cancer Center via doctor’s referral or self-referral. During this assessment, your oncologist will sit with you and go through your family history, drawing out a family tree with members and conditions. Then, your oncologist can make a recommendation based on your risk.
Shepherd received genetic testing at the LMH Cancer Center with Barr after learning that new genetic markers were available for testing and was recommended to be retested.
“Overall, the process was very easy,” she said. “It was pain-free and all the testing was done at the Cancer Center. It was extremely fast and convenient. I would recommend being tested to anyone. It is easy, quick and can truly save a life or provide information you and your family may want to know.”
Other preventive measures for inheritable conditions include regular exercise, a healthy diet, adequate sleep and stress management.
“Preventative medicine has, and always will be, a major cornerstone to optimizing one’s health. Modern medicine and science are incredible tools at our disposal, but the basics of being proactive about your health will always be important, and are truly unmatched,” Smith said.
How to advocate for your health
Health history can be an uncomfortable subject to talk about, but this discussion not only impacts your health, but also the health of future generations. You can talk with your family members and gather information regarding medical conditions, causes of death, age of onset of disease, and even permission to review medical records if possible. Barr recommends asking for pathology and imaging results as well.
“Try to explain that it is important to your health to know your family’s health history and have an open line of communication. Be an advocate for your health,” Barr said.
By learning about your family’s health history, you can make more informed choices about your health and managing risks.
“You can’t change your family’s history. But you can be proactive about screening for early detection and reducing your own risk of cancer. Making healthy choices is a great first start,” Hawasli said.
Talk with your doctor if you are concerned about your family health history. Schedule a genetic risk assessment with the LMH Health Cancer Center by contacting a nurse navigator at 785-505-2800.
— Isabel Ashley is an intern at LMH Health.