Moms of Westport….You are the glue, You are the cornerstone of your family and the pillars of our community. On this day, please work to protect your life and your health….this is the biggest gift you can give your family this holiday season.
On this Thanksgiving Day, as we once more gather—in person, virtually, or a combination—to give thanks and celebrate the importance of family, we can undertake an effort that will have tangible effects on our family’s future. As the Covid-19 pandemic has brought the topic of health to the forefront of our minds, it has also taught us the significance of connections. November 25 is not just Thanksgiving Day, it’s also National Family Health History Day—a day when we can explore our family’s connections, connections that can provide vital, potentially life-saving information for our family members’ futures.
National Family Health History Day is a golden opportunity to share vital information among family members. Information that we will give thanks for next Thanksgiving and all those that follow. We all know that some traits run in families—the brown eyes, the red hair, that tendency to procrastinate, that skill in certain sports. But what so many of us fail to realize and act upon is that some medical conditions and diseases also occur throughout multiple generations and family branches. These health problems can be due to genetic mutations, lifestyle or environmental factors, or they may simply pop up seemingly out of the blue. Having a family health history in hand empowers everyone on their life’s journey as this information is an integral tool in optimizing health for everyone in a family.
Because of a family’s similar genetic background and frequently similar lifestyles and environmental conditions, a family health history can help identify family members who may have a higher than usual risk of developing certain diseases. And those diseases can be rare or, unfortunately, some of the still all-too-common maladies, such as heart disease, stroke, diabetes, hypertension, cancer. Knowing one’s family health history can provide the impetus for family members to adopt beneficial lifestyle changes or, on the advice of their healthcare providers, schedule more frequent check-ups or screenings or undergo genetic testing.
For example, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) notes that if you have a family history of cancer, your cancer risk increases–and it doesn’t always have to be the same type of cancer. Most people are unaware that research has shown that different cancer types can be linked–having one type of cancer—or a family member with one type of cancer—can increase your risk of developing not only that specific cancer but also a different type.
Consider this—the Association of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) advises that hereditary beast and ovarian cancer syndrome (HBOC) may be the cause when there are many family members on one family side with either or both of these cancers. HBOC risk increases if there’s a history of breast, ovarian, prostate, or pancreatic cancer on one family side; one or more women were diagnosed before age 45; one or more women had breast cancer before age 50 with a family history of prostate or pancreatic cancer or melanoma; a woman has breast and ovarian cancers or has a second cancer in the same or other breast; a male relative has breast cancer; or having Ashkenazi-Jewish ancestry. A mutation in two main genes—BRCA1 and BRCA2—is believed to be responsible for HBOC. HBOC also brings with it a slight increased risk for pancreatic cancer and melanoma, and, in men, increased prostate and breast risk.
A family health history consists of a full record of three generations on both family sides—parents, siblings, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins. Some families fortunately enough to either know or have documented medical history of additional generations include that information in their family health history. Information can be shared and updated throughout the year, especially on Thanksgiving, which every year is also National Family Health History Day.
Throughout the year, all of us can make influence the external factors that affect our family’s health. We can advocate for disease prevention efforts, early detection, successful education and awareness campaigns, access to widespread diagnostic and screening tools—all of which can save thousands of lives. But, this Thanksgiving, we can all start a new tradition that also can save lives—the lives of those nearest to us, our families. So, on November 25, take a break from those football games, those awkward political conversations, or in that digestive lull between the turkey and dessert and start investigating those multigenerational family health histories. By acting in the present, investigating the past, a safer and healthier future for our families can result.
Happy Thanksgiving and Happy National Family Health History Day to all of you.
Kaile Zagger & Jennifer Van Aken