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What is Family Health History and Why Does it Matter?

Updated: Jun 8, 2021

Why care about health history?

You’re a mechanical engineer and you get hired on to solve a problem. This problem has stumped many others, but they also didn’t have the experience you have. Challenge accepted. You arrive Monday a little early so you can settle in before meeting everyone. You walk into your new office and realize your predecessor just walked out. You aren’t sure why, you don’t know if it’s the seemingly insurmountable task at hand, or the company? Either which way, you add “clean up my office” to your todo list, as if coming into a new company isn’t enough stress in itself.

Finally around noon, when you should be eating lunch, you come to clean your office. Not a great way to start the new job. Bad boundaries already. Sigh. As you clean, you notice nothing has a place. Everything is just shoved where it fits. Most of it, you don’t even need. You definitely don’t need that story that’s completely unrelated scribbled on a napkin. Hours go by, and you realize that you haven’t found most of what you did need to solve the problem. Was this why it was such a struggle to begin with? Was it a good idea to agree to this job? Is it too late to back out?

Not only did that predecessor leave you with a mess, but they left you without the tools you need. You’re further behind than you anticipated. Already, this task feels like too much. You start trying to figure out what’s broken, so you can find the path the other people went on so you can try to find your own path away from theirs to solve the problem.

Now imagine if you came into a clean, organized office and your predecessor wasn’t available for questions, but all the questions you could have are laid out for you in the files that are neatly put away waiting for their moment?

Now imagine you are diagnosed with cancer. It’s hard to imagine it happening to you. Trust me, I get it. When 40% of people get that news at least one point in their life, you would think it would be a more normal thing. Alas, it still comes as a surprise to most of us.

Numbers are just numbers until you’re one of them. It’s like being in the middle of a medieval battle and realizing you have a defect in your armor and it makes you so much more susceptible. What if you had seen the defect before going out to battle and had the chance to ask the blacksmith to fix it?

What if it’s something a little more low key? Like your parent was depressed a lot, was anxious, had bipolar swings, showed borderline tendencies etc, but was never formally diagnosed. What about if your parents were among the many prescribed anxiety meds like Xanax. Don’t you think a therapist would find that helpful to know? Not only are you more likely to be susceptible to depression (or other mental illnesses), but you may have learned some of those healthy or toxic coping techniques, and they can help you navigate that.

As a side note: If the CDC has something to say about it, maybe we should pay attention?

Ignorance and avoidance is easy

It's hard to accept that the test you got for a genetic disorder might come back positive. It is hard to accept that your armor might have a defect. Not looking won’t make the defect go away. You will continue to be at risk of being stabbed by your mortal enemy, and you won’t even know it because you were too scared to look and be prepared. Early detection often is key to handling many illnesses. When in doubt, go get checked out.

What do I even do with my family history once I have it?

If you know what’s going on with your body and how it might behave, you can make wise decisions for your life. Say Lung Cancer runs in your family. Now you have that reason you lacked to quit smoking. Say your family has a history of a weird brain malfunction that kills brain cells as it processes protein. That might be a good lifestyle choice maker to take into consideration.

If something is going on with you and you need to see a doctor, having this information could be the make or break for you. At the very least, you made your doctor happy. One thing I’ve come to realize, is that a doctor who doesn’t have to work as hard upfront, puts more into your care when it matters. Do your part and be prepared to help them help you.

What if I was adopted?

You've had to adapt your entire life. this isn't new to you.

Don’t discredit how important a role environment has to play in your history. You can get that from your adoptive family. Learning more about your birth family’s health history is a whole nother can of worms.

You can start by asking your adoptive parents if they have any information about your birth parents. It’s possible family health history information was shared during the adoption process. Be sensitive to how this might feel for your adoptive family, and go in with a plan. For some, asking your adopted family might be really scary, or tense, but ultimately, you need to know your history. Pull up your boots, because sometimes life is uncomfortably necessary.

If they don’t have any information, try asking the agency that arranged the adoption if they retained any personal health history information for your birth parents. Research your state’s statutes before you begin requesting adoption history information.

What if I don’t talk to my family?

Ask your doctor. A lot of times they can send out questionnaires from the office that may prompt people to reply. Making it less personal, and so you don’t have to be the one making the call opening doors that might be better off shut.

Try the family members you are on good terms with, even if you aren’t close. They can probably give you more detail than you have, and sometimes they will get the information for you.

Research. You can find out so much online these days. Look at death certificates. Take advantage of ancestor sites. Sometimes obituaries can be found online and have hidden clues. Bring out your inner Scooby Doo and get to investigating.

I talk to my family, but how the hell do I bring this up?

Health history can feel embarrassing, especially if it has to do with mental health and reproductive organs. I didn’t find out breast cancer ran in my family until my older sister, who I rarely talk to, told me she had a lump and was getting it checked out. That’s when I found out a couple members of my family had overcome breast cancer...silently.

Lead by example. Fill out the questionnaire to the best of your ability with your information. Give it to them and let them know you’ve learned how family health history can be important, and want to make sure to help them.

Ask for help filling in the blanks. Starting with a blank form could be intimidating. If your Aunt Martha has arthritis, ask your mom about it before asking about her own conditions.

Take charge. The awareness day is on Thanksgiving for a reason. Print up a shit ton of questionnaires and ask your family members to fill them out, take copies and distribute them later so everyone can benefit and it feels less invasive.

What if I can’t get all this information?

Am I the only one who still does puzzles? McDeath and I have done 2 together since our self-isolation started in March. You are the puzzle, and the history you provide makes up the pieces. Every piece you give your doctor or counselor, is a piece they don’t have to guess at. A piece to help complete the picture for them.

While getting as much of your family health history as possible is important, Doctors are kinda used to coming into a messy work environment with little information. They will do the best they can, with what they have. It’s up to you to give them as many puzzle pieces as possible to complete the picture.

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