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Know Your Genetic Risk

Your family's health history holds critical clues.

WebMD Feature

May 15, 2000 -- Mary Smith hadn't noticed the mass growing in her abdomen until her gynecologist discovered it during an exam. Unfortunately, Smith had missed several annual checkups, and her uterine fibroid had grown to a size that required surgery instead of other, less-invasive, treatment. When Smith called her mother in the Midwest to tell her about the surgery, she learned -- for the first time -- that her mother had had a similar experience when she was about the same age.

"If I had known about my family earlier, I would have gotten my checkups more often," says Smith. "And they might have found the fibroid sooner, while it was still small."

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The diagnosis left Smith convinced that finding out about her family's medical history might be a good idea. She was fortunate that her mother was alive and lucid, and available to fill her in before it was too late.

Inherited Health Problems

Not everyone is so lucky. "Comedian Gilda Radner died of ovarian cancer in 1989. Unfortunately for Radner, she did not know until very late in the game that she had a strong family history of ovarian cancer," says Joan Kirchman Mitchell, chair of the National Genealogical Society's Committee on Family Health History.

"Her aunt, a first cousin, and a grandmother suffered from the same disease. In the population at large, a female's risk of ovarian cancer is around 1 in 70. Gilda's family health history changed her risk to around 1 in 2, or 50% -- a pretty dramatic change in the odds." Had Radner known about her greatly increased risk of cancer, says Mitchell, she might have sought treatment sooner.

Since Radner's death, researchers at the Gilda Radner Familial Ovarian Cancer Registry have determined that women with strong family histories of ovarian cancer develop the cancer at a younger age than the general population and that it occurs at progressively earlier ages in successive generations.

Other researchers have established that individuals having a family history of stroke or certain cardiac conditions are also more like to have these problems themselves. Genealogists, genetic specialists, and health care professionals all agree that knowing one's family health history is important for early identification and treatment or prevention of inherited disorders -- from cancer and heart disease to depression and other types of mental illness. You can also use a medical history to find out about your predisposition to a wide variety of other diseases.

There are some illnesses -- arthritis or Alzheimer's disease, for instance -- which may not currently lend themselves to either early detection or prevention. But in most cases, say researchers, the more you know about your family's health history, the better. And what if you do discover a serious condition that appears to run in your family? Don't panic, to start. Most family-related health problems are caused by a combination of factors, and you may not automatically have the same health problems experienced by several close family members.

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