How Holiday Conversations About Cancer Can Save Lives

When my Mom passed away when I was nine, her death fractured our family, making the time we spent together even more challenging. My siblings, significantly older than me, often spent holidays away from me and my Father. Meanwhile, my Father’s alcoholism worsened after my Mother’s death, making family gatherings unbearable for all involved.

I often wonder how differently life could have been had my Mother survived. With her alive, we could have continued our family holiday traditions and cherished those moments together. Perhaps we could have discussed our family’s medical history, potentially saving my brother Jimmy’s life and preventing my second brother’s cancer diagnosis. Recognizing the significance of these gatherings as opportunities to uncover valuable insights into a family’s health legacy, I understand the importance of tapping into the knowledge of multiple generations present. Elders in the family can provide a treasure trove of information regarding family medical history.

The loss of my brother Jimmy to colon cancer at the tender age of 36 and the colorectal diagnosis of my second brother prompted me to engage in meaningful conversations with my older relatives, revealing a wealth of information about our family’s medical past. These discussions shed light on behavioral patterns, health conditions and inherited traits. My brothers’ fates may have differed if we had known our family’s medical history earlier.

Silently plaguing our family is Lynch syndrome, a hereditary cancer syndrome that increases the risk of developing various cancers. This genetic predisposition often goes undetected, affecting approximately 1 in 279 Americans. Lynch syndrome arises from mutations in genes responsible for DNA error repair, potentially leading to tumor formation and triggering cancer.

Knowing your family history of Lynch syndrome can be a life-saving intervention. Sadly, it took two of my brothers to develop cancer before I became aware of it. Early detection and screening have reduced my risk of developing cancer and since my diagnosis of having Lynch syndrome, treatment options for those who develop Lynch syndrome cancers have advanced considerably.

Broaching the topic of family history, especially when it involves sensitive issues like cancer diagnoses, can be challenging, particularly in families with strained relationships or a history of familial dysfunction. It’s crucial to remember that discussing family history is not to dredge up painful memories or assign blame but to gain a deeper understanding of our collective past and make informed decisions about our health.

When a family member mentions that a relative is undergoing cancer treatment or is suffering from another illness, I find that this can serve as an appropriate segue to inquire about further family medical history. Approaching the conversation with empathy and understanding and acknowledging that discussing family history may evoke difficult emotions for some is essential. Avoiding blame or judgment, I focus on comprehending the facts and their impact on our family’s health.

I’m mindful that only some people are comfortable sharing personal health information, and I respect the privacy of others, encouraging them to share what they feel comfortable with. These conversations can be challenging, and seeking professional guidance from a therapist specializing in family dynamics and communication has been helpful.

Engaging in conversations about your family’s medical history during the holiday season can be a valuable way to strengthen familial bonds and promote open dialogue. The information shared about my family medical history following my second brother’s colorectal cancer diagnosis has empowered me to make informed choices about my overall health and may have saved my life.

The CDC offers a stellar, comprehensive, free tool to help you collect and create your family medical history.

Happy Holidays to you and yours and may your holiday be filled with gratitude, joy and good health!

For more news on cancer updates, research and education, don’t forget to subscribe to CURE®’s newsletters here.

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