Knowing your dad's health may be a gift to you

Knowing about your father’s health may help you and your doctor determine your risks for a number of health issues, including cancer, diabetes and heart disease.

This Father’s Day, you may want to sit down with your dad and discuss his medical history. Knowing about your father’s health may help you and your doctor determine your risks for a number of health issues, including cancer, diabetes and heart disease. “We inherit half of our DNA from each parent,” says Eric Fowler, Genetic Counseling Manager at our Chicago hospital. “Therefore, your father’s medical and family histories have just as much impact on your health as your mother’s personal and medical histories.” 

A survey by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services found that 96 percent of Americans believe that knowing their family medical history is important. Yet, the same survey found that only one-third of them have tried to gather and document their family’s health history. Knowing the past may help create a healthier future.

What to ask

Here are some common questions you may want to ask your father:

  • What diseases or medical conditions does or did he have, and when did they develop? The earlier in life a family member has been diagnosed with a disease, the more likely you are to have a genetic pre-disposition.
  • What are his health habits? Does he smoke? What type of diet does he eat? What activities does he enjoy?
  • What, if any, problems has he had with high cholesterol, blood pressure, depression, kidney disease and alcohol/drug dependency issues? It is important to note how old he was when any of these conditions developed.

If your father has passed away, keep a record of the cause of death and his age when he died. “It is also important to know the medical history for relatives, such as parents, siblings, children, aunts, uncles, grandparents, grandchildren and first cousins,” says Fowler. “Information should be gathered about major health conditions and the ages the conditions were diagnosed.” Major health conditions include heart disease, diabetes, stroke and cancer.

Knowing your disease risk early on may allow you to take steps to improve your health, and your odds of avoiding illnesses. While a family medical history provides information about the risk of specific health concerns, having relatives with a medical condition does not guarantee you will develop that illness.

What to look for

Red flags in the family history that may influence someone’s cancer risks include:

  • Close relatives with cancer (parents, children, siblings)
  • A  relative or relatives diagnosed with cancer before age 50
  • Multiple relatives on the same side of the family with the same cancer type
  • Multiple relatives with different but related types of cancers (breast and ovarian, colon and uterine, for example)

“Cancer does run in some families,” Fowler says. “This can happen because of an inherited risk for cancer, shared environment and lifestyle factors that impact cancer risks for relatives.” Inherited cancer syndromes are caused by abnormal changes in genes, and they may mean an increased risk for several kinds of cancer. According to the American Cancer Society, for example, hereditary breast and ovarian cancer syndrome is caused by mutations in the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes. Lynch syndrome is an inherited condition that may increase a person’s risk for colon, endometrial and other cancers, including those of the stomach, ovaries, kidney, pancreas, small intestine and brain. Li-Fraumeni syndrome is a rare, inherited disorder that may lead to the development of a number of cancers, including sarcoma, leukemia, and brain cancers, cancer of the adrenal cortex and breast cancer.

Genetic testing may help people better understand their cancer risk, and whether they should pursue certain cancer screenings and prevention. In families that have inherited cancer risks, relatives who do not have those mutations are at average risk for cancer. “Genetic counselors have been trained to review personal and family histories and help people better understand the chances of an inherited risk for cancer and their level of cancer risk by performing cancer risk assessments,” says Fowler.