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If you’ve been to the doctor recently, especially one you haven’t seen before, you likely filled out a form about your family’s history of certain diseases. Questions like this allow your doctor to determine the best action for you regarding preventative screenings.
“The big debate in medicine is whether some diseases are caused by your genes, environment, or both,” says Dr. Andrew Gantzer, family medicine physician. “Some are precipitated by behaviors and what you’re exposed to, like smoking leading to lung cancer. Others may be impacted by family history.”
Like how not all smokers will develop lung cancer, not everyone with a family history of certain diseases will develop them. But because you share most of your genes with family members, you should be screened just in case.
According to Dr. Gantzer, some of the most common conditions influenced by genetics include
- Heart Conditions
- High blood pressure
- High cholesterol
- Heart disease
- Cancer, especially breast, colon, ovarian, and prostate
- Anemias or other blood problems
- Inflammatory bowel diseases, such as Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis
- Thyroid disease and other autoimmune diseases, such as rheumatoid arthritis and lupus
Depending on which condition runs in your family, your doctor may choose to run certain tests or begin routine screenings at an earlier age. For example, those with a family history of colon cancer may begin screening at either age 40 or 10 years earlier than the youngest age at which a family member was diagnosed.
Your doctor may also suggest more aggressive forms of prevention if your risk is high.
“The BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes run in families and really increase your risk of breast and ovarian cancer,” Dr. Gantzer says. “Some people who have that gene will opt to have their breasts removed.”
While not all family history will point you to major surgery, you should continue getting routine screenings. You may need to do them sooner or more often based on your family history.
The important details
With DNA programs giving us more information than ever about decades of our family history, you may have more information than your doctor needs. Whose health information is pertinent to your doctor?
“For sure first-degree relatives, such as mom, dad, and siblings,” Dr. Gantzer says. “It’s probably a good idea to tell your doctor about grandma and grandpa, too.”
Regarding second-degree relatives, like cousins, the information may not be as helpful. Still, if it feels important, Dr. Gantzer says not to hesitate to bring it up.
“We’ll sort through the information together,” Dr. Gantzer says. “It’s much better to have more information than none.”
Though it is essential to let your doctor know of any significant changes in the health of your first-degree family members, a cancer diagnosis in the family is not necessarily a reason to make an appointment yourself.
“Save the information for the next time you come in,” Dr. Gantzer says. “But if you have any related symptoms, go see your doctor.”
Often, when someone is diagnosed with a disease that strongly correlates with genetics, their doctor will let them know which family members should also be tested. Don’t be afraid to speak to your doctor or your family member’s doctor if you are worried about your risk.
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