August 2011

Update Your Doctor on Your Family’s Health

A new study suggests that it’s a good idea to tell your doctor if close family members develop cancer. It might affect the types of cancer screening tests your doctor recommends.

Your family’s medical history is one of the best tools for predicting your risk for developing cancer and other disorders. That’s why doctors usually ask about your family’s health the first time you visit.

NIH-funded researchers across the country set out to learn how changes in family history might affect a patient’s cancer risk and the screening tests recommended by standard guidelines. They combed through family health data collected over a decade from more than 11,000 people who had a personal or family history of cancer.

Their study focused on colon, breast and prostate cancers. Family history of these cancers may warrant earlier screening or more sensitive tests than those recommended for other people.

The analysis showed that family histories of cancer change significantly when people are between ages 30 and 50 years. The researchers recommend that doctors maintain accurate information for their patients by getting a comprehensive family history by age 30, and then updating it at least every 5 to 10 years.

“Many patients make lists of questions for the doctor before their appointments, and we hope they add changes to their family history to those lists,” says lead researcher Dr. Sharon Plon of Baylor College of Medicine. “Our results are relevant for all patients, since anyone may have a change that would affect their cancer screening recommendations.”