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Knowing Your
Family's Health History

A picture of a younger person using both of their hands to hold on to their older relative's hand

Knowing family's health history is important.

Your family’s health history can hold important clues as to your risk for developing cancer. This includes first-degree relatives (parents, siblings, children), and second-degree relatives (grandparents, grandchildren, uncles, aunts, nephews, nieces, and half-siblings).

Cancer is caused by genetic mutations, and sometimes these genetic mutations are hereditary. However, only about 5-10% of cancers are caused by an inherited genetic mutation.

While some people think that “cancer runs in their family”, it’s important to understand that the cancer may be a result of a shared environmental exposure or a similar behavior such as having several members of the same family that smoke.

Also important is to understand that even if you do have an inherited genetic mutation, it doesn’t mean that you will develop cancer.

Understanding your family’s health history and being aware of your potential risk of having an inherited genetic mutation may help to predict your risk of developing cancer.

It’s important to share your family’s health history with your primary care physician and/or your oncologist so they are aware of your potential risk as well and can recommend proper cancer screening.

If necessary, they can also order genetic testing to better understand if you are a higher risk, how to recommend the best options for reducing your risk and/or the most effective treatment options if you have developed cancer.

A tool from the American Surgeon General that you can use to keep track of your family health history is My Family Health Portrait.

What if I don’t know my family history?

For some people who don’t know their family history, their best defense is to understand other risk factors (behavioral and environmental) they may have, become familiar with signs and symptoms to be aware of, and follow recommended cancer screenings. This will hopefully help to find cancer at an earlier stage when it is easier to treat. Other things that can help are outlined on our Lowering Your Cancer Risk page.