Q: With all that's going on in the world many people are concerned about maintaining peace and harmony around the holiday table. Is this still a good time to bring up another difficult topic like family medical history? How do you raise the subject?

A: With the holidays right around the corner, there may be people cringing at the thought of anything resembling politics being discussed at the family table. As an alternative topic, getting together with relatives can be the perfect opportunity to discuss your family history. It's true that some families are more open to discussing medical and health histories than others, but these conversations are becoming more common as ancestry websites gain popularity. In fact, Thanksgiving has been declared as National Family History Day. Therefore, use this upcoming holiday season as a time to learn more about your family history.

Though at first these conversations feel uncomfortable, learning your family history of cancer (and other medical conditions) is an essential part of risk assessment. When individuals are identified as being at increased risk for cancer based on their family history, there are steps that can be taken to reduce or manage that risk. For example, if a close relative of yours was diagnosed with breast cancer at a young age, you may be recommended to start breast cancer screening at a younger age than the general population.  Knowing your family history information can help your doctors provide a personalized medical plan and empower you to take steps towards a healthier future.
If asking about your family history of cancer feels intimidating, perhaps you could start off by asking about a great grandparent that you never met. What was that person like? Do you have any favorite holiday memories with them? If all goes well, these questions can be a smooth transition into their medical history. If this discussion reveals a family history of cancer, it is helpful to find out what types of cancer relatives had and how old they were when they had the cancers. Once you have this information, be sure to share it with your health care providers so that they can use this information to keep you healthy. By learning and recording your own family health history, you are taking the first steps in helping to ensure a longer, healthier future.

Amanda Brandt, Dana Clark, and Danielle McKenna are genetic counselors in the Basser Center for BRCA at Penn's Abramson Cancer Center.

Read more Diagnosis: Cancer here »