We Are Family: Understanding Your Family History of Cancer

by Katy Henke

Family members share many things that can impact cancer risk: lifestyle choices, habits, physical environments and their genetic makeup. Of all of these, genetics can be particularly key.

Because of this, it’s important to understand your family history of cancer and how it may impact your risk for the disease. Some types of family history and related genetic mutations can greatly increase the risk of certain cancers, while other types can have an impact similar to common lifestyle risk factors – like being overweight.

So, take the opportunity over the holidays to talk with your family members about their health history. Jennifer Ivanovich, MS, MBA, CGC, a board certified clinical cancer genetic counselor at Siteman Cancer Center and Assistant Professor of Surgery in the Division of Public Health Sciences at Washington University School of Medicine, recommends asking some of the following questions:

  • Has anyone in the family had cancer?
  • If so, where did the cancer start or what was the specific cancer type?
  • About what age was the person diagnosed? 
  • Has the family member had genetic testing and, if so, what were the specific results? (Having a copy of the genetic testing results is always helpful).

There are many tools available to help chart your family health history. A doctor or genetic counselor is the the best source for understanding your family history of the disease and how it may affect your risk.

If your family history or genetics puts you at increased risk, your doctor may recommend special steps that can help you reduce or manage that risk.

A healthy lifestyle also remains important for people with a family history of cancer. While you cannot change your genes, shifting to healthier behaviors, such as quitting smoking and keeping weight in check, can improve your overall health and lower the risk of cancer and other important diseases.

Knowing that cancer runs in your family offers a great opportunity to focus on prevention. For tips on lowering cancer risk, check out  8IGHT WAYS to Stay Healthy and Prevent Cancer. Start with one or two changes, and build from there.

– – –

To learn your risk for common diseases, visit Your Disease Risk calculator.

For more resources on family history, visit the CDC’s Family Health History website or the Surgeon General’s My Family Health Portrait website.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *