Rush University Medical Center

Health Information Second Generation:
The Importance of Family History

Sandy Girten was well aware her father and grandfather had died young of colon cancer. So around 10 years ago when she began passing blood in her stools at a young age, she went to the doctor immediately.

A colonoscopy showed Sandy had familial polyposis, a genetic disease that predisposes people to colon cancer. 

She was referred to Rush University Medical Center, where doctors discovered a tumor in her lower bowel through a digital rectal exam and performed an extensive surgery that involved removal of her colon. After recovering from surgery, she received chemotherapy.

Knowing Sandy's family history of cancer, her doctor advised testing the three of her four children who were old enough to be tested for the genetic anomaly that almost always leads to colon cancer. 

They all tested positive. 

Doctors at Rush immediately scheduled them for surgery. They each underwent a procedure that removes 90 percent of the colon, thus significantly lowering their risks for developing colon cancer. Sandy's children are now grown and living healthy lives.
Knowledge is power. While disease and the risk for disease can be inherited, not every generation has to share the same outcome. Sandy improved her children's lives by knowing and communicating her family cancer history.

"Knowing family history helps patients take their own health issues more seriously and allows doctors to further individualize patient care," says Rebecca Kellum, MD, an internist at Rush University Medical Center.

Kellum advises her patients to keep a list of family health problems. The health history of your first-degree relatives (parents and siblings), as well as having two or more extended family members with an illness, are usually most relevant.

Record not only health problems but also the age at which these troubles began. "If a family member had a heart attack at age 45, this increases a person's risk far more than if that family member had a heart attack at 70," Kellum says.

Your doctor can let you know what other information you may need to complete your family history.

What you can do. The next step is to review your family history with your doctor and assess your personal risk for disease. Based on this risk, your doctor may prescribe early screening tests, recommend lifestyle changes or refer you to a specialist.

For some patients, genetic testing and counseling may be recommended. For example, several cancer programs at Rush offer genetic testing and counseling, such as the Sandra Rosenberg Registry for Hereditary and Familial Colon Cancer and the Rush Inherited Susceptibility to Cancer program for ovarian and breast cancers.

Take Control — Examine your family history and risk for disease by visiting and taking the free personal health assessment. Take the results of the assessment to your doctor for further discussion. Or call (888) 352-RUSH (7874) to make an appointment with a doctor at Rush.

Rebecca Kellum, MD, is certified in internal medicine and practices at Associates in Internal Medicine. Her special interests include women's health, preventive medicine and palliative care.

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