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obtaining a family medical history

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Every time you see a new doctor, you’re handed that new patient intake form. It asks all sorts of questions about you, like how often you drink, whether or not you smoke, what type of exercise you do, and whether or not you’ve had any surgeries. But it also asks about your family’s medical history. I always feel a little bit ashamed when I get to that part of the form because, there are some pretty major pieces of information surrounding my family’s health that I just don’t know. I should be able to answer, for certain, whether or not anyone in my family has had cancer or a heart attack. But the truth is that some of that information, relatives haven’t been clear about. I vaguely remember this cousin or that uncle being hospitalized for something…at some time. Maybe it was a heart thing? Didn’t somebody catch one cancer in the early stages?

The truth is that many people don’t know much about their family’s medical history. It’s not like it’s something people want to talk about when they get together. When we’re with loved ones, we want to celebrate life – not dwell on the things that threaten it. Plus, many people think of themselves as individuals first, and part of a bloodline second. We like to think that our choices – our individual decisions – will shape our fates more than anything in our DNA could. But acknowledging the power of your genetics in your health is the first step to taking a bit more control over it. We spoke with Dr. Lauren W. Powell, MD (pictured below) about the importance of knowing your family’s medical history.

Dr. Lauren Powell

Source: Erica J Simmons / Erica J Simmons

What genetic conditions might surprise us?

There are some conditions that are widely understood to be genetic, like Crohn’s disease or high cholesterol, but we asked Dr. Powell what conditions patients are often surprised to find can run in the family. “I think a lot of patients are surprised that some of the cancers are [hereditary]. For instance, some forms of breast cancer are genetic and others aren’t…sometimes there’s some confusion there,” she says. “Same thing with colon cancer. I think some patients are surprised that some of those can also be genetic.” Research has found that as many as 10 percent of breast cancer cases may be hereditary.

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