Skip to content

For Your Health: Please Pass the Turkey, Stuffing and Family Health History

By Dr. Graham A. Colditz, Siteman Cancer Center

It’s that time of year. We’re moving quickly toward late autumn, with its falling leaves and longer nights. And that means one thing: Thanksgiving is right around the corner.

It’s a holiday that brings family and friends together around a festive meal. Sure, it may not always go off without a hitch. Families aren’t perfect, after all, and your uncle Charlie is always trying to stir things up. But, even so, it can be a rare time to sit down with those close to us and just catch up.

And that also makes it a great opportunity to do something really important for your family’s health: collect a health history.

“Knowing family health history can help people understand their risk for cancer and other diseases,“ said Dr. Kimberly Kaphingst, director of cancer communication research at the University of Utah’s Huntsman Cancer Institute. “And this can help their doctors personalize cancer screening recommendations and other recommendations to reduce disease risk.”

Yet, studies show that only about one in three people actually spend any time connecting with their family about their health history. Thanksgiving or other family gatherings throughout the year are ready-made to fix this by breaking out our smartphones or notepads and gathering what’s known about diseases that may run in the family.

Doing a bit of homework beforehand can help you get the most from the family’s time together. Jotting down the health history you already know and then bringing this to Thanksgiving can help spark people’s memories and entice them to share.

“There are a number of helpful online guides on collecting family health information,” noted Kaphingst. “The U.S. Surgeon General’s My Family Health Portrait ( takes you step-by-step through the types of information to collect. Common diseases, such as cancers, cardiovascular disease and diabetes, are a good place to start.”

It’s likely not everyone will want to take part in the process, and that’s OK. Health is a very personal issue that can bring with it varied concerns and emotions. Whatever information people are willing to share, though, helps build a more complete story. And the more details you piece together and share with your family, the more likely other family members are to share what they know at some point.

Once you’ve recorded a health history – even if it has some holes – the most important thing is to then share it with your health-care provider, and encourage family members to do so with theirs, Kaphingst said. If a disease runs in the family, especially if it’s diagnosed at earlier ages, individual family members may be at greater risk. The good news is there could be steps you can take to help protect yourself. This can include earlier and extra screening tests for some cancers and heart disease risk factors, like blood cholesterol, diabetes and hypertension; medications to help lower the risk for certain diseases, like heart disease and breast cancer; and regular check-ups to help keep track of any important changes to your health.

While most people won’t have a health history that puts them at a greatly increased risk of a disease, it’s important to highlight any potential red flags. The process can take some effort but is a gift you can give to your loved ones. That’s something the whole family can be thankful for.

It’s your family’s health. Take control.

– – –

Dr. Graham A. Colditz, associate director of prevention and control at Siteman Cancer Center at Barnes-Jewish Hospital and Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, is an internationally recognized leader in cancer prevention. As an epidemiologist and public health expert, he has a long-standing interest in the preventable causes of chronic disease. Colditz has a medical degree from The University of Queensland and a master’s and doctoral degrees in public health from Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health.