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After you enjoy a meal with your family this Thanksgiving, why not take a few minutes to discuss your family history? It may not be the first thing that comes to mind when celebrating the holiday, but with the relatives gathered around the table there really is no better time to review this vital information.

Knowing your family’s health history can save your life and the lives of those you love. Family health history is one of the main factors used by physicians to determine an individual’s risk of developing a number of serious conditions that may have a genetic link, including many types of cancer. Even so, most families rarely – if ever – sit down and discuss their medical issues, let alone compile them into a written document. For your family, you can easily change that.

Here are some tips to get the conversation started and flowing smoothly, before the post-meal sleepiness sets in. 

  • Make a list of relatives—Write down the names of the blood relatives you want to include in your family health history. The most important relatives to talk to are your parents, brothers and sisters, and children, followed by your grandparents, uncles and aunts.
  • Prepare your questions—Write out questions ahead of time to help focus your discussion. Consider asking about any chronic or serious illnesses and how old your relatives were when they were diagnosed. You may also want to compile a list of medications relatives are taking and ask about your family ancestry, including where your family is from, how old relatives were when they died and what they died from. When it comes to a family history of cancer, age of diagnosis, type of cancer and type of treatment are particularly important.
  • Explain to relatives what you’re doing—Begin your conversation by explaining that learning more about your family history can help save lives. Let your relatives know that the information they share will help you create a family health portrait for the entire family.
  • Keep a record—Remember to bring along a pen and paper, tape recorder or use your smart phone’s voice memo feature to keep track of what your relatives tell you. After the conversation, you can compile the information into a written or electronic document that you can provide to all of your family members.
  • Respect your relatives’ feelings—Some family members may not want to share all or certain parts of their health information. Be sensitive to their feelings and let them know whatever information they can provide will be helpful.

Moffitt offers a comprehensive genetic risk assessment service to help you determine if cancer may run in your family. During an assessment, one of our board certified genetic counselors will meet with you to take a detailed family history and discuss a number of factors, including the risks, benefits, limitations and emotional implications of genetic testing.