We at ThinkGenetic hope that you and yours have had a wonderful holiday season! We’d like to take the time to remind everyone that while you may be rushing to finish getting gifts for everyone on your list, one of the best gifts you can give your family members is information about your health.
There’s nothing I like more in the holiday season than sitting together with my family. My brothers will don the sweaters I bought them (and most likely won’t see again until next December), my mom will fuss over making enough food, and the kids will be playing with their newest toys. It’s a great time to catch up on everyone’s busy lives, share our joys, and celebrate being together. These occasions are great opportunities to share important updates, but what about when an update isn’t so jolly?
We all know that it can be difficult to share medical information about ourselves with others. Sometimes we’re embarrassed. Sometimes we think it isn’t important for anyone to know. Sometimes we don’t want anyone to worry about us. Even though these are completely valid reasons people may be hesitant to share, the information you provide can potentially impact the health of your loved ones. Let’s talk about a couple of examples:
Did you know that having a relative with colon cancer increases your risk of developing colon cancer yourself?
- Colon polyps are extremely common. We get colonoscopies so that we can find polyps and remove them in the attempt to reduce risk for colon cancer.
- There are things that can make someone more likely to get colon polyps than others like age, weight, diet, smoking history and alcohol use.
- Family history can also increase the risk for colon polyps and cancer.
- Even if your relative with colon cancer/polyps has had negative genetic testing related to their cancer you may still be at an increased risk and require increased screening.
- There are guidelines that tell doctors how often someone should have colon cancer screening. One of the factors used is family history.
- We know that polyps aren’t a popular topic at the dinner table, but providing family members with information about any polyps/cancer found in yourself could potentially save their lives! Colon cancer is one of the few cancers we can routinely detect in a precancerous stage and take steps to reduce risk before it becomes a big problem. Polyps aren’t anything to be ashamed of, and a few potentially awkward moments could give your relatives the information they need to make sure they receive proper cancer screening.
- Learn more about colon cancer and risk factors by visiting the American Cancer Society at https://www.cancer.org/cancer/colon-rectal-cancer.html.
Did you know that your high cholesterol could actually be due to a genetic condition?
- High cholesterol is also very common in the general population. We know having a family history of high cholesterol increases a family member’s risk of developing high cholesterol themselves.
- It is estimated that 1:250 people in the United States have a genetic condition called Familial Hypercholesterolemia (FH). This is a “different” kind of high cholesterol that someone is born with. It causes very high levels of the “bad” cholesterol, LDL, which then increases the risk for heart attack and heart disease.
- You may think that “our family just has high cholesterol,” but if your family has FH it is important that family members speak to their doctors about proper screening/treatment for themselves and children.
- There is treatment available for FH and early treatment has been shown to improve clinical outcomes for patients!
- Learn more about familial hypercholesterolemia by visiting the Family Heart Foundation at https://thefhfoundation.org/familial-hypercholesterolemia.
These are just a couple examples of times when sharing health history can have a big impact on the health of family members. It’s also important to let family members know about other conditions like cancer, thyroid disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, osteoporosis, and more. Talk to your doctor about your health history to learn what could be important for you to share with others.
Here are a few tips when thinking about having this type of conversation with your family:
- Consider the right time to share this information. I know, I just went on and on about how important it is to share, but there is a time and place for these conversations. Try to find a time to set up a talk where it won’t feel like you’re “springing” information on everyone.
- Give people the choice to engage in these conversations. Let your family members know that you’ve had some changes in your health that could impact them and ask if they want to know this information. Some people don’t want to know, which is their choice.
- Know that some people may need extra support. If family members want to know more about your health history, make a safe space to talk. People can have a wide range of reactions to new family health information, so it’s important to make sure everyone is comfortable and supported.
- Know that some family members may not take this information as seriously as you do. We all have that person we know who never goes to the doctor. Even if you tell relatives that something in your history means they may need additional or earlier health screenings some family members may choose not to do anything with that information. It is important to share, but we can’t make relatives take control of their own health. The important thing is that you shared and gave them the knowledge they’d need when talking to their doctors.
- Know that you don’t have to be an expert. It can be intimidating to share medical information, especially when you may not understand the ins and outs of it yourself. Your job isn’t to be your family member’s doctor. Give them important information like the name of your condition, when you were diagnosed, and other pertinent details. After that, it will be up to them and their doctors what to do with this information based on their other health history. Don’t feel like you have to have all the answers.
We hope that this has given you a nudge to consider sharing some information about your health with family members. There are also some tools available online to help family members share information with each other like “My Family Health Portrait,” a tool from the Surgeon General available at https://phgkb.cdc.gov/FHH/html/index.html. As always, talk to your doctor about any information presented in this article, on the sites listed in this article, and with any questions you may have about your family’s care. Remember your doctor and genetic counselor are there to help!
About Jessica Dronen, MS, LCGC. Jessica is a Genetic Diseases Research and Information Specialist for ThinkGenetic, Inc. She received her Master of Science in the field of Genetic Counseling at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center in 2016. She has worked with both pediatric and adult patients in a variety of areas. Away from work Jessica enjoys reading memoirs, making music and spending time outside with her family.