Tracing the family tree is a hobby many people enjoy. It can be fun to be a family historian, gathering stories and discovering connections to people and places you may never have known about otherwise!
Knowing your family’s medical history may not provide that same sense of fun and adventure, but it’s equally informative and even more important for your health. Because families share genes, environments and even lifestyle, they may also share patterns of health disorders – including certain cancers. A medical history helps individuals, families and healthcare providers to assess the risk of specific health conditions.
If you have some family members with cancer, you may wonder what your risk is. It may be high if you inherit a gene that is linked to cancer. Or it may only be slightly increased if you share lifestyle habits.
Either way, knowing your family medical history helps you to lower your risk.
What screenings should I get if my family history reveals a higher-than-average cancer risk?
This is something that you and your doctor would determine together. If your family history reveals a high possibility of inherited cancers – with indicators such as family members diagnosed at a young age or many family members having the same cancer – you may adopt a screening protocol specific to your situation. For example, you may have screenings at a younger age than the general population.
There aren’t hard-and-fast guidelines for this, so work closely with your doctor to make a plan.
What screenings protect everyone’s health through early cancer diagnosis?
It’s possible to have cancer and now know it – that is, not have any recognizable symptoms. Because of this, the American Cancer Society offers cancer screening guidelines designed to detect cancer early. The earlier the diagnosis, the greater chance for successful treatment.
These are the cancer screening recommendations:
- Women starting at age 21 to begin regular Pap screening for cervical cancer and to have an annual pelvic exam.
- Women starting at age 40 to receive an annual mammogram for breast cancer detection.
- Men starting at age 45 (if black or with a family history) or age 50 (if neither) to receive annual DRE tests and PSA if indicated to spot early warning signs of prostate cancer.
- Men and women starting at age 45 to begin screening for colorectal cancer.
- Women at the time of menopause to be told about the risks and symptoms of endometrial cancer.
- Yearly lung cancer screening with a low-dose CT scan (LDCT) for certain people at higher risk for lung cancer: those aged 55 to 74 years, in fairly good health, who currently smoke or have quit smoking in the past 15 years, and who have at least a 30 pack-year smoking history. (A pack-year is one pack of cigarettes per day per year. One pack per day for 30 years or two packs per day for 15 years would both be 30 pack-years.)
It’s important to keep in mind that having relatives with specific forms of cancer does not mean that you will definitely develop the same condition. Conversely, with no family history of cancer, you may one day have a cancer diagnosis.
Knowing your medical history does not create any certainties for the future. But it does allow you to take steps to reduce your cancer risk. Knowledge is power!
Bermuda Cancer and Health Centre
46 Point Finger Road, Paget