Skip to Content


Activity: Create a Family History Tree

Focused on Health - November 2010

By Adelina Espat

The holidays are a great opportunity to ask family members about their health meal

“Learning about your family’s health history can help you answer your doctor’s medical history questions,” says Karen Lu, M.D., co-medical director of the Clinical Cancer Genetics program at MD Anderson. “It can even help your doctor decide if you may be at risk for an inherited cancer.”

Breast, colorectal, ovarian, prostate and endometrial cancers sometimes run in the family. 

“Cancer has its roots in our genes, and genes can be altered or mutated in several ways,” Lu says. “These abnormal genes can lead to cancer.”

You can inherit abnormal genes from a parent. But, just a small portion of cancers – about 5 to 10% – are actually inherited. More cancers – about one-third – are related to lifestyle choices like smoking, not exercising and making bad food choices.

Map out your family medical history

Here’s how to create your medical family tree.winter tree

  1. Find out your ancestry. Include the country or countries where you ancestors came from originally. Some ancestries, like Jews of Ashkenazi (Eastern European) descent, have a higher risk for certain cancers.
  2. List blood relatives. Include your first (parents, siblings, children), second (nieces, nephews, aunts, uncles, grandparents) and third (cousins, possibly great-aunts and -uncles) degree relatives. Add the current age of each or the age when they died.
  3. Add cancer diagnoses, if any. Include the age when they were diagnosed with cancer, if you can find that out. List details, such as the part of the body where the cancer started and how the cancer was treated (chemotherapy, radiation therapy, surgery).
  4. Include any birth defects or genetic disorders that you learn about.

Download MD Anderson’s family history form to create your medical family tree. Or, use the Surgeon General’s Office Family Health Portrait. This online tool helps track all family-related diseases, not just cancer.

Dig deeper for details

Hit a dead end while mapping out your tree? Try these tips to get more information.passing food

  • Speak with older relatives. They are usually good sources for information.
  • Gather hospital records when there is some uncertainty.
    • Hospitals can release records directly to the patient.
    • Has a relative died? Hospitals can release records to the next of kin, the closest relative(s) entitled to the deceased individual’s property.

Watch out for “red flags”

After completing your family tree, review your findings and look for these “red flags.”

  1. Family member who was diagnosed with cancer before age 50.
  2. Family member who has had two or more different cancers.
  3. Two or more family members who have had the same type of cancer. Look specifically for breast, ovarian, colorectal, prostate or endometrial cancers.

“If you find some of these ‘red flags,’ speak with your doctor,” Lu says. “He or she may recommend that you talk with a genetic counselor.”

A genetic counselor can help you decide if genetic testing is right for you. Genetic testing involves looking for abnormal genetic changes in a person’s blood sample.

Your doctor also can suggest changes you can make to prevent cancer and the screening exams you need to find the disease as early as possible.

Make your family medical tree a priority this holiday season. It may help ensure that you enjoy many more holidays with your loved ones.

Related Links:

Cancer Risk Check (MD Anderson)
Genetic Testing and Counseling (MD Anderson)
Get the Facts: Genetics and Family History
Family Health Portrait (Surgeon General’s Office)

Subscribe to our newsletter

Get the latest on protecting your body from cancer. 


Hungry for a healthier diet?

© 2014 The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center