Blogs Expert Journal Know Your Family History

Know Your Family History

Written by  Chanh Huynh, M.D.
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Patients often do not give a detailed family history because they do not see how this information has any significance to their current care.

family genetics and cancerFortunately, significant breakthroughs in cancer biology have shown genetics to be essential to understanding the development of cancer and thus create an incumbency upon providers to always obtain a comprehensive family history.  Furthermore, advances in genetic testing have helped build predictive models for cancer development and thus can be used to guide early cancer screening tools that form the foundation of effective preventative medicine.

There has been an abundance of germline mutations that have been proven to be essential for cancer formation. These data not only help physicians make appropriate recommendations for early cancer detection but prophylactic therapy.  Using this information, risk reduction procedures and behavior modification can all but eliminate the risk for certain cancers.  Such is the case for BRCA testing in breast cancer, which usually is initiated when patients have a strong family history of the disease.

BRCA is a gene essential for DNA repair and is mutated in a small group of patients thereby conferring a marked increased risk for developing breast and ovarian cancer. Therefore, BRCA status can dictate the appropriate cancer screening recommendations for patients as well as guide chemo preventative strategies.

family history and cancerEmerging studies in cancer genetics have had an important impact in cancer therapeutics as well. Discoveries have been made in familial cancer syndromes such as Lynch Syndrome. This complex of diseases which includes colon cancer and uterine cancer and is frequently first suspected when patients describes a family history of several family members with one of these disease entities.  Genetic testing can then determine the presence of a mutation which predisposes to the development of one of these malignancies, and if a cancer is diagnosed, therapy can be altered so that it will be most effective.

Genetic mutations that have been proven to be causative for cancers are at the forefront of cancer research and have impacted therapeutics in a very positive way. Thus, family history is crucial in helping physicians diagnose and treat cancers effectively. Therefore, patients and physicians should always be cognizant of the importance of obtaining a complete family history.

Chanh Huynh, M.D.
Medical Oncologist
Cancer Care Associates of York

WellSpan Health

Read "For the Next Generations," an inspiring story about a mother who helped save the lives of her children and grandchildren through genetic testing. 

Do you have a history of cancer in your family?  Tell us about it in a comment below.


#6 FacingCancer 2011-08-12 16:29
To Holly, Laura and Jeff:
Thank you all so much for sharing your perspective and for offering your thoughtful insights into the issue of adoption and not knowing your family history. That must be frustrating for you, and thanks for bringing this issue to our attention. Hopefully we can focus a bit on this issue in the coming months of Facing Cancer Together. Thanks again for the comments.
#5 Holly Adult Adoptee 2011-08-11 15:59
I am an adult adoptee, who has been denied the basic info of my family, my heratige, medical.... Adoptees are people with feelings too! We need our heratige & medical info returned to us. Please contact your state and ask that our rights are returned to us. We would like to know who we are without going thru so much to find out. I have found my family and know my medical history. But it shouldn't have to take this much time and effort to find out. It should be a basic human right.
#4 Laura Schwartz 2011-08-11 15:55
I would love to know if I'm at risk of anything but I'm adopted and the government doesn't allow me to know anything about my medical history. Adult adoptees need the non-adopted community to know that we need your support in getting our original birth certificates and medical information in most of these United States.
#3 Jeff Hancock 2011-08-11 12:20
I am an adult adoptee, age 46. Sealed Original Birth Certificates prevent me from knowing my born identity, my ancestral lineage, and my medical history.

State legislators have the authority to pass into law bills which will restore our rights to our identities.

Won't everyone please contact their state legislator, and urge them to endorse adoptee rights in their own state? We adopted adult would appreciate owning our identities.
#2 FacingCancer 2011-08-10 10:06
Hello Terri! Congrats on your success, and thanks so much for sharing your personal story about how screenings and family history have benefited you. Take care!
#1 Terri Wingham 2011-08-09 14:20
I learned at only 20 years old that I have the BRCA Gene Mutation. I am positive the access to screening I got over the next ten years saved my life. I was diagnosed with a grade 3, triple negative tumour at age 30 that my doctors found through an MRI scan. After three surgeries and four rounds of chemo, I am incredibly happy to be cancer free. Had a study not been done on my paternal grandmother's family, I have no idea what my fate would have been.












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