Family Health History Day: Why talking about family cancer risk should be your new holiday tradition

Brandi’s story: National Family Health History Day

Turkey, stuffing, gravy, mashed potatoes and a thorough discussion about your family’s cancer risk.

These are top Brandi Preston’s “must-haves” on Thanksgiving Day.

It was during this holiday when Brandi, only 9 years old at the time, learned her mother had breast cancer. What she didn’t know is that her mother carried the BRCA1 gene mutation that increased her risk for breast and ovarian cancers. By the time Brandi’s mother was offered genetic testing, it was too late. Her BRCA1-driven cancer had metastasized throughout her body and brain, and with no remaining viable treatment options, Brandi’s mother died five years after her initial diagnosis. 

Now 31, Brandi is outspoken about the importance of families knowing their risk for cancer.  

“Right before our mother passed, she made my brother, sister and me promise we would always know our risk for getting cancer,” Brandi says.

National Family Health History Day falls on Thanksgiving, making it the perfect time to gather the stories of how cancer has impacted your family. Just because one family member has had cancer doesn’t necessarily mean other family members will, too. But knowing your family history increases the odds of predicting whether cancer will repeat itself and in whom.

Knowing your family history can help determine if you’re a good candidate for genetic testing to help estimate your risk for cancers such as those related to mutations in the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes, including breast, prostate and pancreatic cancers. While only 5 to 10% of cancers are caused by inherited genetic changes, genetic testing can be helpful in situations where certain types of cancer appear to run in families. Genetic testing is also important in those who have a family history suggestive of other cancer syndromes such as Lynch syndrome, the most common cause of hereditary colorectal cancer, especially in people under age 50. Lynch syndrome is also linked to higher incidence rates of endometrial, stomach and liver cancers, among others.

family history medical chart

To honor her mother, at 19, Brandi sought genetic testing. The results were that she had inherited the same BRCA1 mutation, putting her at up to a 72% lifetime risk of breast cancer, up to a 44% lifetime risk of ovarian cancer and an elevated risk of pancreatic cancer.

By the time she turned 22, Brandi had both breasts surgically removed via bilateral mastectomy with reconstruction, thereby lowering her breast cancer risk to less than 2%. She is now planning on having both ovaries removed once she turns 35 to help similarly lower her risk of ovarian cancer. Choosing to have surgery was a “no brainer” says Brandi. “I never want my son to go through what I went through.”

“Genetic testing has been available for more than 30 years. That’s nearly my whole life. But that families and providers are still not having this conversation is so frustrating,” Brandi says. “It’s up to you to advocate for yourself to your provider if there is a history of cancers,” says Brandi.

A helpful way to do that is to know your family history. You can be sure you know yours by observing National Family Health History Day this Thanksgiving and ensuring that talking about your family’s risk of cancer becomes part of your family tradition. 

The Prevent Cancer Foundation’s family history chart offers three simple prompts to ensure you and your provider have the valuable information you need to help determine which cancer screenings you should have, at what age you should have them and how often they should be performed. A family tree template is also provided to help you tell a cohesive family health story and help identify whether genetic testing may be appropriate.

The Foundation also offers other preventive tools, including A Guide to Preventing Cancer, an online cancer screening quiz and screening snapshot chart to learn what cancer screenings are needed at every age. You can read more about Brandi’s story here. 

Want to use your voice to empower others to take charge of their health with cancer prevention and early detection? Share your story with us.