In my last post, I wrote of the value of knowing your family medical history and discussing with your physician your personal health risks.
Again having a bad family history does not condemn you to suffer the same fate. Your possible genetic predispositions may serve as early warnings to be more vigilant and to consult early and regularly with your physician. Early detection or intervention can change the course of a disease. Many are curable at earlier stages.
The standard screening for colon cancer begins at age 50 with either an annual stool test for occult or hidden blood or a colonoscopy every 10 years. The latter is much more expensive and not available for most of us through the publically funded system.
However, if you had a significant family history of colon cancer, the appropriate screen would be a colonoscopy every 5 years beginning 10 years before the age of your youngest affected relative.
With this system of screening, benign polyps are often removed before they become cancerous. If we had waited for the appearance of symptoms such as narrowing of the stools, severe constipation and progressive weight loss, we would catch colon cancer at a stage more difficult to treat.
If you have a family history of heart disease, stroke or sudden death at a young age, you should be screened for possible modifiable risk factors such as high cholesterol, high blood pressure, abnormal heart rhythms, valvular heart disease and diabetes. Early intervention with medication and lifestyle changes in many cases may prevent premature death or disability.
We usually start checking healthy males for prostate cancer at the age of 50. However, if a man’s father or brother has been diagnosed with prostate cancer, we would normally recommend screening at an earlier age.
Likewise, if a woman has a family history of breast cancer in her sister or mother or across generations, she should discuss with her physician how much earlier than age 40 she should be screened with mammograms. She may also be eligible for the testing of the BRCA genes that predict a high likelihood for breast cancer.
Elevated cholesterol, diabetes and high blood pressure are common inherited conditions that are greatly modified by lifestyle measures including healthy eating and exercise. In many cases, these actions are combined with medications to prevent the health consequences, including premature strokes, peripheral vascular disease, heart disease, vision loss and kidney failure.
So your family history gives you and your physician invaluable information that can enable you to remain healthy and achieve your potential in life.