Cancer and Your Family Health History

What Is Cancer?
Cancer is a disease that occurs when cells in the body grow out of control. It can affect any organ tissue in the body.
All cancers are caused by a change in one or more genes that control cell division. The cause of the change is not always known. Often it can be linked to exposures in the environment, like smoking. Sometimes the change occurs in a gene that is passed down from parent to child. Most cancers are caused by a combination of factors that are not always well understood.     

Why is Family History Important?
A tendency to develop cancer can run in families. Most cancers happen in people without a known family history, but some kinds are inherited.
Look for these red flags in your family :

  • A family member diagnosed with cancer before 50 years of age
  • 3 or more relatives with cancer on one side of the family
  • 3 or more generations affected with cancer
  • Any family member diagnosed with 2 or more cancers (for example: breast and ovarian)
  • A male with breast cancer

What You Can Do
Taking action is a three-step process:

  1. Learn about your family's health history
  2. Write it down
  3. Share it with your health care provider

Step #1: Learn about your family's health history
Collect stories about your heritage and culture. This is an excellent opportunity to preserve your family’s memories.

  • Start by talking with your family.
    • Holidays and other family events (birthdays, weddings, religious gatherings) provide a great opportunity to ask family members about their lives.
    • Plan individual conversations to get more information.
  • Use what you have — existing charts or trees, photo albums, baby books, birthday date books, etc. — to add information.
  • Send a survey. This can be part of a holiday newsletter or school project.
Here are some tools that can help you start talking with your family members about their individual health histories:

Learn all you can about your family’s health: What diseases do / did they have? What was the age at onset of symptoms (when the disease started)?

Collect information on you, your parents, siblings, and children, and then move on to the extended family. Find out each person's:
  • name and relationship to you (myself, parent, child, etc.);
  • ethnicity, race, and/or origins of family;
  • place and date of birth (or your best guess, such as “1940s”);
  • (if deceased) age and cause of death;
  • health history (include conditions such as heart disease, diabetes, and cancer and when the disease started); and
  • lifestyle (occupation, exercise, diet, habits such as smoking and regular doctor check-ups).

Collect stories about your heritage and culture.


Step #2: Write it down
Gathering all this information provides you with an excellent opportunity to preserve your family’s memories. Here are some tools to help you record your family’s health history:

  • My Family Health Portrait — A Tool from the Surgeon General
  • Family HealthLink

    Presented by the Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center, and Multi Media Design, Center for Knowledge Development, College of Medicine Public Health. This is an interactive Web-based tool that asks a series of questions regarding personal and family history of cancer. The Data are not saved, and reports can be printed. Algorithms estimate the user's cancer risk (high, moderate or average risk), based upon patterns of cancer in the family. Family History-Based Interventions: A printable summary includes risk assessment and cancer screening and prevention recommendations.

  • G.R.E.A.T. — Genetic Risk Easy Assessment Tool

    The GREAT, developed by Case Western Reserve University and University Hospitals Case Medical Center, helps you to record your family medical history by answering questions about the people in your family. When you are finished, the computer will draw your family tree and create a personal report of your family history risk and preventive measures for cancer.

    Whether or not there is any family history of cancer, your family health history is important for your medical care. This Web site makes it easy to keep a copy of the family tree for your medical records. You can save or print your family tree and the report. Discuss with your health care provider what this means for your health, what next steps to take, and what you might want to say to your relatives.

  • Health Family Tree – A Tool from the Utah Department of Health

  • MyGenerations

    An interactive Web-based tool that collects personal and family history of cancer, draws an annotated family tree, executes a cancer risk assessment, and provides personalized risk-based screening, behavioral, and referral information.

Step #3: Share it with your healthcare provider

Once you've collected your family’s health history…
  • Bring it to your health care provider so you can discuss what you've found. S/he might refer you to a genetics specialist or recommend early screening.
  • Use it to make healthy lifestyle choices. Talk with your health care provider about ways in which you can change your diet and exercise habits to reduce your risk for many conditions.
  • Share what you've learned about your family health history and healthy lifestyle choices with your family. Shared knowledge can lead to support.
  • Keep adding to your family health history, even after these initial discussions. It's a lifelong process that pays healthy dividends.