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The Thanksgiving Talk That Could Save Your Life

Asking your family about their medical history can save your life.

The Thanksgiving Talk That Could Save Your Life

This Thanksgiving, as you gobble up untold calories and feast on great conversation with your loved ones, you may want to talk about something that could save your life: your family medical history.

In 2004, the U.S. Surgeon General declared Thanksgiving Family History Day because it was a perfect opportunity to get millions of families—who are rarely together at the same table—to talk about health matters.

Family history is considered by medical professionals to be the most basic genetic test, and a great way to focus on prevention of serious illness.

A 2004 survey by the CDC found that 96 percent of Americans agree that their family’s health history is important, but only one third of respondents had made the effort to collect and record that information.

El Camino Hospital has recently launched a Family Medical History Tool to assist with tracking that information. Built by Medco, the web-based tool helps catalog and analyze medical history information of family members. That information can then lead to the discovery of potential hereditary risks for conditions that may have a genetic component.

Lily Servais, a board-certified genetic counselor at El Camino, said learning about one’s family history is an easy and valuable preventative step to ensure good health.

“Family history is the first, most basic test and really one of the best links in knowing where we should focus on prevention and treatment,” said Servais.

Her job as a genetic counselor is to work with patients and their families, often in hour-long sessions, by going over their medical histories and looking for red flags that might warrant genetic testing.

Servais said she’s seen the value of these tests firsthand. One woman came to see her whose family has a strong history of colon and uteran cancer, both of which are strongly correlated to Lynch Syndrome. If you carry a genetic mutation in one of the Lynch Syndrome genes, she said, you have a high risk of developing cancer.

“This woman, she knew her father had a mutation for it, as did her brother,” said Servais. That gave the woman a 50/50 chance of having the same mutation and therefore being at great risk for cancer.

“Her test revealed that she did not have the mutation,” said Servais. “For her, it  was a really big relief. She was still single, she was in her early 30’s, and she wasn’t sure how this decision would impact her ability to get married and have children.”

Eric Pifer, MD, El Camino Hospital’s Chief Medical Officer, was very excited about the potential for genetic counseling and testing.

“Genomic medicine has opened up truly exciting opportunities for patients and doctors to improve diagnosis, treatment and prevention of certain diseases,” Pifer said. “But it’s challenging even for specialists to stay on top of the latest developments, and there’s frequently not enough time in the patient’s appointment to cover all the issues and questions that might arise. We can provide that resource and ensure that both the patient and physician get the information needed to make appropriate decisions.”

Lynn Dowling, Executive Director of El Camino’s Genomic Medicine Institute, also said that these new services will have a dramatic effect on patient care.

“According to a recent AMA survey, nearly all physicians surveyed believe that genetic tests can be useful in prescribing medicines,” she said. “Beyond that, there are so many additional reasons to consult with a genetic counselor, including identifying prenatal testing options, assessing individual risk for conditions such as heart disease, cancer, diabetes or other diseases with a strong genetic component, or concerns about a recent diagnosis that might have a genetic or inherited component.”

Servais said that the holidays are a fantastic time to gather that family history information for the next time you see your primary care physician.

“I recommend that when people are sitting around the table with their families, to try to get this information and bring it to their doctor,” she said.

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