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The summer months are filled with numerous family occasions, such as graduations, reunions, vacations and picnics. Getting together with your family and catching up can be great fun. Connecting with and learning more about your family can also improve the health care you receive.

How can that be? Family members share many things, like lifestyles, behaviors, environments and genes. These things taken together can affect your health and your risk of chronic disease.

Health-care providers know that common diseases such as heart disease, cancer and diabetes, plus some rare diseases, like cystic fibrosis, can run in families. If one generation of a family has a chronic illness like diabetes, it is not uncommon for some in the next generation to also have diabetes. Looking at and tracing the illnesses your grandparents, parents and other blood relatives have or had can help your healthcare provider take better care of you and your family. The information will enable your doctor to possibly predict the disorders you may be at risk for and help you and your family take steps to keep healthy. For cancer, this may mean increased and/or early screenings.

With all the headlines about genetic testing, it is easy to overlook the value of a “low tech” way of predicting disease, like a comprehensive family history. Francis Collins of the National Cancer Institute has said that a family health history is one of the best genetic tests available.

According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), a family health history is a written or graphic record of the diseases and health conditions in your family. It is recommended that a useful family health history shows three generations of your biological relatives, the age at diagnosis and the age and cause of death of deceased family members. It is helpful to talk with your family about your health history, write the information down and update it from time to time.

Many know that a family health history is important, but only one-third of Americans have tried to gather this information and write it down. Even if you are healthy now, knowing your family health history and sharing it with your health-care provider can help you to understand your risk and to take action to prevent disease. The United States Surgeon General states that learning about your family’s health history may help ensure a longer, healthier future together.

To help individuals collect and organize their family health history information, CDC’s Office of Public Health Genomics collaborated with the Surgeon General and other federal agencies to develop a web-based tool called “My Family Health Portrait.” You can access it at

The Northeast Regional Cancer Institute is a nonprofit, community-based agency working to ease the burden of cancer in northeastern Pennsylvania.  Focusing on community and patient services, hospital and practice support services and survivorship, 100 percent of Cancer Institute resources are invested in this region.  For more information about the cancer institute, visit or call (800) 424-6724.