Family histories and family trees are a great source of information for families. Many families use them to learn about their ancestors – what did my great-great-great-grandfather do for a living and what caused him to pass away? Genetics professionals have also always been fascinated by family histories, but for different reasons. Before genetic testing was available, taking a family history was the primary way of studying how inherited colorectal cancer syndromes such as familial adenomatous polyposis (FAP) were passed down in families. Even with genetic testing today, family histories are a crucial tool for gathering and organizing health information in a family.

Your family history may have been taken at one of your appointments, such as with your surgeon, oncologist or during a genetic counseling appointment. Because an analysis of family history is an important part of your medical care, it is a good idea to make a list of your relatives and their medical histories before being seen by a member of your multidisciplinary care team. Ask your relatives about the types of medical conditions that occur in your family. If you have medical records relating to your concerns, you may want to bring them with you to the appointment. Although these inherited colon cancer syndromes primarily affect the colon and rectum, other organ systems may be involved. It is important to document a detailed family history to include the following: types of cancer, types of operations and details of colonoscopies (at what age and findings). It is also a good idea to include any other medical conditions when creating your family tree, because family histories are also useful for your routine medical care. In short, the more detail you can include, the better! Once a family history is generated, your physicians can recommend screening tests for conditions or cancers and determine what type of genetic testing to perform. The family history can identify which relatives are at risk and need preventative screening, and it can serve as a resource that you can easily share with your extended family.

Your family history is typically organized into a family tree, such as the one shown here. Family trees are useful visual tools that allow physicians and patients to easily review the disease history and relationships of an entire family at a single glance. Genetic counselors specialize in constructing family trees. Once created, your family tree can be added to your medical record so that all members of your care team (colorectal surgeons, gastroenterologists, genetic counselors, registry coordinators and others involved with your care) can easily refer to it.

Sample family pedigree