By Niecee Schonberger, MS, CGC, Genetics Program Coordinator, Sharsheret

As a Genetic Counselor, part of my job is to construct family trees with information about medical history, ages of onset of various conditions, etc. of family members going back several generations. It’s amazing how many people don’t know what Grandma Leah died of, how old sister Sarah was when she was diagnosed with cancer, what caused the death of cousin Jacob at age 7, how many children aunt Millie had, and so on. Why is this important? You ask.

It’s important because your family history gives the best idea of whether a condition, such as breast cancer, may be inherited or is simply the result of sporadic, individual factors, which is the case in 90-95% of breast cancers. If it seems to be inherited, then genetic testing may be helpful. If it’s sporadic, genetic testing may be a waste of time plus a lot of money.

So, here’s a plan. In just about every family, there’s a “family historian”, someone who knows all about everyone. If you sit down with her or him, you’ll probably get an earful and learn things you never knew, but along with the tidbits and the gossip, you’ll learn the useful, and sometimes surprising, information that can be important when you try to gauge whether there is a genetic susceptibility in your family. What have you learned about your family that you never knew? How did it help you?