Sarah Cannon - November 25, 2014

Having a family get-together this holiday season? Exchange more than just gifts and recipes - share family medical history, because what you don't know, could hurt you.

family medical history

Why Family Medical History Matters

Just like blue eyes or red hair may run in the family, so can a higher risk of certain diseases such as cancers (breast, ovarian, prostate and colon), heart disease, stroke, asthma, diabetes, arthritis and Alzheimer's disease.

You don't need to be Sherlock Holmes to uncover valuable information about your family medical history, just simply ask. Gather your information now because every family has a story, but not every family has YOUR story. Christi Arreguin, a genetic counselor for the Methodist Healthcare Cancer Network, a Sarah Cannon Partner in San Antonio, recommends gathering information from three generations including immediate relatives (parents, siblings) and second-degree relatives (grandparents, aunts and uncles, nieces and nephews, grandchildren).

Start with the basics

  1. Date of birth
  2. Date of death
  3. Cause of death
  4. Major illnesses or surgeries (be as specific as possible)
  5. If a family member had cancer ask: What type of cancer? When were they diagnosed? What were their symptoms? What was their age of onset? Was the cancer on one or both sides? (i.e. breast cancer)
  6. Date when each major illness was diagnosed

Add lifestyle information

  1. Where did they live?
  2. Were they active or sedentary, overweight or malnourished?
  3. Did they have any unhealthy habits or addictions that may have compromised their health?
  4. What kind of exposure did they have?

Look for patterns

  1. Did more than one relative have the same type of illness?
  2. Did the illness tend to show up at about the same age for each?
  3. Does one side of the family have more of a specific type of disease (cancer, for example), or is it more or less balanced between the maternal and paternal side?

What To Do Next

If you see or suspect a pattern, show your doctor what you have discovered and ask about screening tests , lifestyle changes or any other proactive strategies you should undertake. Your doctor may also refer you to a genetic counselor who will discuss genetic testing and banking your DNA. Then, be sure to share your knowledge with your family members.

We find that many people do not know about genetic counseling and have never thought to gather their family medical history, said Arreguin. Genetic counseling is the wave of the future and we want patients who are referred to us see this as an educational process. Our hope is that once a patient completes genetic counseling, the patient is armed with knowledge, has the opportunity to ask questions and feel empowered to make the right decision for their family.

You can download the My Family Health Portrait form from the National Institutes of Health. For more information, visit the National Human Genome Research Institute's Family Medical History and Tools Resources Online .

Tip: Need help getting information about a relative who has died? Read Accessing Deceased Patient Records FAQ or go to the CDC's page on Where to Write for Vital Records .

Want more information about Sarah Cannon's genetic counseling? Please contact Ask Sarah at


National Institutes of Health, Department of Health and Human ServicesÑ My Family Health Portrait , National Human Genome Research Institute Family Medical History and Tools Resources Online

Genetics Home Reference: Why is it important to know my family medical history?

Mayo Clinic: Medical history: Compiling your medical family tree

CDC: Where to Write for Vital Records

National Society of Genetic Counselors: Your Genetic Health: Patient Information