Family History Important for Your Colon Health
One of the risk factors for colorectal cancer is having a family history of the disease.
According to the American Cancer Society (ACS), around 33 percent of individuals with colorectal cancer (CRC) have relatives who have also been diagnosed with the disease.
A “family history” means a first-degree relative (mother, father, sister or brother) had colon cancer or precancerous polyps.
If you don’t know much about your family’s medical background, consider talking with your relatives about their colorectal health during Thanksgiving. Nov. 23 is National Family Health History Day.
“Nobody has to share their personal health information if they don’t want to, but I encourage patients to ask different family members and explain how this information can be helpful in being more informed about their health and making health decisions,” said Saundra Nguyen, MD, in Medical XPress. “Talking to first-degree relatives like parents and siblings can be a good starting point.”
Second-degree relatives may also have an increased risk for CRC. You should also consider talking to them about their medical history. Aunts, uncles, grandparents, grandchildren, nieces and nephews are considered second-degree relatives.
Collecting Your Family Medical History
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends compiling a list of questions to collect your family’s medical history. When you talk with your relatives, write their answers down on this Family Health Tree.
Here are a few questions to ask relatives about their colorectal health:
Have you been diagnosed with colorectal cancer or have polyps been discovered during a colonoscopy?
Colorectal cancer is cancer of the colon or rectum. Most cases of CRC begin as small clumps of cells called colon polyps. Polyps start out as benign but can become cancerous if not identified and removed during a colonoscopy.
How old were you or a family member (exact or approximate age) when you were diagnosed or when polyps were found?
Everyone is at risk for this disease, regardless of age. In the United States, around 10 percent of people diagnosed with colorectal cancer annually are younger than 50.
If your relative was diagnosed before turning 50, you have a higher risk for CRC. This is called early-age-onset or young-onset cancer. Young adults tend to have more aggressive tumors that may be challenging to treat.
What is the origin of your family?
Your racial and ethnic background can be a factor in your risk for a colorectal cancer diagnosis.
According to the ACS, American Indian and Alaska Native individuals have the highest colorectal cancer rates in the United States, followed by African American males and females.
The ACS reports individuals of Ashkenazi Jewish background face a significantly elevated risk of colorectal cancer compared to other ethnic groups worldwide.
Once you collect your family medical history, share that information with your healthcare provider. Request that this data be included in your medical records. The documents need the names and ages of relatives who have had colon cancer and/or polyps.
Schedule Your Colonoscopy Screening
Colorectal cancer is the second-leading cause of cancer death in the United States. An estimated 153,020 new cases of colon cancer will be diagnosed this year, and 52,550 Americans are expected to die from the disease.
The good news is colorectal cancer is preventable and highly treatable when detected early through timely screenings.
The United States Preventive Services Task Force recommends that people at average risk start screening for colorectal cancer at age 45. If you have digestive system complaints, talk to your doctor, regardless of your age.
Not everyone has symptoms, but common warning signs of CRC may include the following:
- Abdominal pain
- Blood in the stool
- Change in bowel habits
“Someone with a strong family history of colon cancer may be recommended for a colonoscopy earlier than the general population …,” said Dr. Nguyen in Medical XPress. “We can also identify early warning signs of disease and work on preventive lifestyle measures.”
Individuals who have a genetic disposition for colorectal cancer, a family history of precancerous polyps, or certain hereditary cancer conditions may be advised to undergo …
- a colonoscopy starting at age 40, or 10 years before the age that the immediate family member was diagnosed with cancer;
- more frequent screening;
- colonoscopy only instead of other tests; and
- in some cases, genetic counseling.
During a colonoscopy, a gastroenterologist examines the entire length of your colon for polyps or abnormalities. Doctors can detect and remove precancerous polyps in the same procedure.
Coverage of colonoscopy differs with health insurance policies. In most cases, there should be no out-of-pocket costs (such as copays or deductibles) for CRC screening tests. You should contact your health insurance provider to verify any charges and to approve a colonoscopy before 45.
Learning about your family’s colorectal health is important for your health. On National Family Health History Day, or anytime, talk to your relatives about their medical history and write it down. Then, discuss with your healthcare provider about scheduling your colonoscopy.