Beginning in 2004, the U.S. Surgeon General designated Thanksgiving National Family Health History Day. What does that mean for you? It’s pretty simple; as you gather with your relatives for the holiday, whether in person or virtually, take time talk about and document health problems that run in your family. (Note that although this blog post focuses on gathering information related to colorectal cancer [CRC], the guidelines apply to any health condition, from diabetes to breast cancer.)
You may know that having a family health history of CRC makes you more likely to get CRC yourself. The good news is that there are steps you can take that will significantly lower your risk. In fact, according to the American Cancer Society, regular screening is one of the most powerful weapons for preventing colorectal cancer.
Not sure how to kick off the conversation about CRC? Begin by asking (or asking about) your parents, siblings, children, grandparents, aunts, uncles, nieces, and nephews (on your mother’s and your father’s side of the family):
- Have you had cancer? If yes, what type(s)?
- How old were you when you were diagnosed?
- Have you had any polyps detected and / or removed?
- How old was [name of relative] when she died? What was the cause of death?
If you learn about a parent, sibling, or other close family member who had CRC before age 50 or if you have multiple close family members with colorectal cancer, tell your doctor. Knowledge is power, but only if you act on it. Depending on your situation, your doctor might recommend one or more of the following:
- Colonoscopy starting at age 40, or 10 years before the age that your immediate family member was diagnosed
- More frequent screening
- Colonoscopy only instead of other tests
- Genetic counseling
Pre-cancerous polyps can take 10 to 15 years to develop into cancer. Through regular colonoscopy, they can be found and removed before they have the chance to turn into cancer and spread to other parts of the body. Sadly, about one in three people in the US who should get tested for CRC have never been screened, but you don’t have to be one of them.
It may seem odd to talk about CRC at the holiday dinner table, but it only takes a few minutes, and it’s time well-spent. It may well save your life, or the life of someone you love.