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Know your family history

Talking to your family about their health

Family medical history is so important that the Surgeon General declared Thanksgiving to be National Family History Day, in the hope that Americans will use family gatherings as an opportunity to learn about their family health history.

However, many families are reluctant to discuss past illnesses in a group setting or even one on one. Privacy concerns, shame, and the desire to avoid painful memories can erect a wall of silence and prevent the sharing of important medical information.

Remember, it's okay to ask questions, even if medical matters aren't normally discussed in your family. You have a right to information that will help you make decisions about your healthcare and your children's. Once you start the conversation, you may be surprised at how some people open up.

You know your family best. Consider whether they will be more comfortable talking in a group, in private, on the phone, or by e-mail. If you think some of your relatives will be more receptive than others, approach them first. They may be able to tell you about other family members' illnesses as well as their own.

Prepare your questions ahead of time and think about how to raise them without causing pain or offense. Explain why you are seeking this information and how it will help you protect yourself and your children from illness. Assure your relatives that their personal medical details will not be misused or shared without their permission.