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Get to Know Your Family History This Holiday Season

M. D. Anderson News Release 12/04/07

This holiday season, The University of Texas M. D. Anderson Cancer Center recommends that you take time to speak with relatives about your family's history of cancer. A small percentage of cancers – five to 10% – are inherited. Common cancers associated with family history include breast, colorectal, ovarian and endometrial cancers. 

"Family gatherings are the perfect time to ask each other detailed questions about health history," says Karen Lu, M.D., co-medical director of the Clinical Cancer Genetics program at M. D. Anderson. "It is important to gather information about the health history of your parents, siblings, grandparents, aunts and uncles, and even your cousins."

Below are some helpful tips for gathering this information:

  • Speak with older relatives. They are usually good sources for this information.
  • Gather hospital records when there is some uncertainty.
    • Hospitals can release records directly to the patient.
    • If a relative has passed away, hospitals can release records to the next of kin (the closest relative(s) entitled to the deceased individual's property).

Learning more about your family history of cancer can help your doctor decide if you would benefit from speaking with a genetic counselor. Genetic counselors use this information to develop a medical family tree, also called a pedigree. A pedigree is a well-established method used to recognize medical conditions that may be hereditary or genetic.

"Based on your family tree or pedigree, the genetic counselor can help you determine whether genetic testing is necessary," says Molly Daniels, a genetic counselor at M. D. Anderson. Genetic testing involves looking for abnormal genetic changes in a person's blood sample. People who inherit abnormal genes from a parent may be at increased risk of developing cancer.

More cancers – about one-third – are related to diet and exercise, as compared to those related to family history. You can reduce your risks of developing many cancers associated with family history by making healthy lifestyle choices such as not smoking, wearing sunscreen, eating nutritiously and exercising.

To learn more, visit Cancer Awareness & Prevention.

© 2015 The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center