I often catch myself doing something that one of my family members would do. For example, when I heat up my coffee in the microwave and forget about it for the next hour. When I begin to search for it I think “that’s what Grandma Gilbert would do.” I will use the same hand mannerisms as my mother or work through a tough decision in a similar way that my dad would.
Ultimately you are your family. In both nature and nurture. Not only do we, at many times, behave like our parents but we inherit part of their genetic makeup. This is pretty common knowledge, right? We expect our children to have similar hair or eye color as ours, to be of similar height, to resemble one parent or the other. But you give more than just your dark hair or your hazel eyes to your kids and your pick up more than just your eye rolling and coffee misplacing skills from your elders.
We as gynecologists care about your family history. Why? Because your risk of certain diseases, including cancer, could be increased based on your family history. We know that about 5-10% of gynecologic cancers are hereditary cancers. What is a hereditary cancer syndrome? It is a genetic predisposition to a certain type of cancer so the patient is at a largely increased risk of developing a certain type of cancer and these cancers are often diagnosed at a younger than expected age. When I talk to medical students about what I do every day, I tell them that one of the most important things I do is try and prevent disease. When I ask, “Do you have any family history of breast, ovarian, uterine or colon cancer” not only am I going to remind you about how often and when to screen for these diseases but if your family has been affected with these cancers we will talk about how you might be a candidate for genetic testing that could save your life.
For example, if your family history includes women affected with breast and ovarian cancer, you or your relatives might be affected with a BRCA mutation. Or if you or your close relatives are diagnosed with uterine or colon cancer then my mind is on alert to think about Lynch syndrome testing. When we identify women affected by a hereditary cancer syndrome we can offer those patients early and more intensive screening and in some cases even perform risk reducing surgery. Every month we learn more and more about how cancer develops and discover better ways to treat and prevent cancer.
I have a cousin who was diagnosed with stage 4 ovarian cancer in 2012. She’s pretty much a rockstar. She spends her days running her nonprofit caring for patients and their families. You can check her out at http://www.tteal.org. She is an advocate for early detection of ovarian cancer as well. She is inspiring to me. You can be an advocate as well. You can advocate for yourself and your own family. Learn your family’s history. Talk with your physician. Find out if you or someone in your family is a candidate for testing for a hereditary cancer syndrome.
You might still turn out like your grandmother leaving your coffee to sit in the microwave. That wouldn’t be so bad. But you might also find out you can reduce your risk of cancer by simply sharing your family history with your physician. Something to think about.