Learn About Your Family’s Colon Cancer History



When you gather with relatives this Thanksgiving to celebrate, consider discussing your family medical history.

This year, Nov. 23 is National Family Health History Day. It is the ideal time to discuss colorectal cancer (CRC).

One in three people with colorectal cancer have family members who also had it, according to the American Cancer Society (ACS).

If your relative was diagnosed before turning 50, your risk increases. This is called early-age-onset or young-onset cancer.

If your immediate family members have had adenomatous polyps (abnormal growths that can become cancer), your risk for CRC also increases.

Colorectal cancer is preventable. After learning your family history of CRC or polyps, you can make informed decisions about life-saving health screenings.

Collect Your Family Medical History

A family history of colorectal cancer is defined as having a first-degree relative (mother, father, sister or brother) with colon cancer or precancerous polyps.

An increased risk may extend to second-degree relatives to include aunts, uncles, grandparents, grandchildren, nieces and nephews.

Before you start asking personal medical questions, it’s important to tell your close relatives why you need this information. The fact is, this knowledge could help save your life.

“Someone with a strong family history of colon cancer may be recommended for a colonoscopy earlier than the general population …,” said medical expert Saundra Nguyen, MD, in Medical XPress. “We can also identify early warning signs of disease and work on preventive lifestyle measures."

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends compiling a list of questions to collect your family medical history. Write their answers down on this Family Health Tree.

The following questions may help you collect important colorectal health information from both sides of your family.

  • Have you been diagnosed with colorectal cancer or had polyps discovered during a colonoscopy?
  • How old were you (exact or approximate age) at diagnosis or when polyps were found?

Everyone is at risk for developing colorectal cancer, regardless of age. In the U.S., approximately 10 percent of individuals younger than 50 are diagnosed with CRC. Research indicates these people are more likely to have advanced disease at diagnosis.

  • 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 American Cancer Society, American Indians and Alaska Natives have the highest rates of colorectal cancer in the U.S. They are followed by African American men and women.

Additionally, the ACS indicates “Jews of Eastern European descent (Ashkenazi Jews) have one of the highest colorectal cancer risks of any ethnic group in the world.”

Once you collect your colorectal health history, it’s important to share detailed information with your healthcare provider. Request to have this information included in your medical records. Include the names and ages of family members who have had colon cancer and/or polyps.

Schedule a Colonoscopy

The United States Preventive Services Task Force recommends people at average risk for colorectal cancer start screening at age 45. Individuals should be screened even if they don’t have symptoms. People with digestive symptoms should be considered for colonoscopy regardless of age.

People with a family history of colorectal cancer, past polyps or specific genetic cancer syndromes should start screening earlier. Screening should start at age 40, or 10 years before the age that the immediate family member was diagnosed with cancer. You may need to schedule screenings more frequently.

Colonoscopy is the recommended method of screening for people with a family history of CRC. 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 age 45.

Next, think about arranging your colonoscopy.

We are able to assist you with finding a gastroenterologist. Our doctors perform colonoscopy screenings at ambulatory surgery centers around the country. Find a center near you and schedule this life-saving procedure for your health.