Talking to your relatives about cancers in the family

It’s holiday season, and for many of us that means more time spent with extended family members. This uptick in family time can be a good opportunity to talk to relatives about the family tree in general, especially since genealogy is such a popular hobby right now. Adding medical information to the conversation can present some challenges, but having details about relative’s cancers can be important for your own health as well as that of your family members.

Why knowing your family cancer history is important

And, you will have a lot of information for your next doctor’s appointment when you are asked “Has anyone in your family had cancer?”

Some tips for getting the most out of your family history

Starting the conversation

Medical and health information is typically considered to be private, and it can be daunting to think about how to talk to relatives about such an emotional topic. Approaching a relative who has had cancer in the past, or who is currently going through cancer treatment, can be difficult. Being sensitive, but direct, is often a good approach. Starting the conversation along the lines of, “Hey there Aunt Jill, it’s so good to see you. I know this might seem a bit forward and please tell me if you prefer not to discuss it, but I’m updating my family medical history and I wondered if I could ask you about your diagnosis?” The same approach goes for asking about deceased relatives — be respectful of privacy and be honest about the fact that the topic may bring up potentially painful memories (especially if a relative passed away recently).

What to ask

The two most important details to know are the type of cancer, and the age at which it was first diagnosed. Age of diagnosis is usually pretty easy to find out. Finding out the type of cancer can be more challenging, particularly for relatives from older generations who tended to be much more private about medical issues, and who simply may not have been given a lot of detailed information. Unlike most current oncology practices that use electronic health records and encourage patients to access their detailed medical information, patients with cancer decades ago may have only been told that “they have a tumor”, and families often described their relatives as having “passed after a lengthy illness” because of the stigma that cancer used to carry.

A few helpful details to gather

Make it a family affair

Finally, consider asking if another family member has already collected the information and is willing to share it. Many of the patients I see mention that all they had to do was reach out to the one relative in the family who collects and keeps all of the information — the work was already done! However, if you end up being the collector and keeper of the information, do your best to make it available to the rest of the family (with the OK of those who provided the details, of course). There is a saying in medical genetics that “the family is the patient”, and having all relatives working off of the same information means that everyone will be able to get better guidance about their own personal cancer risks.