Your Medical Family Tree Could Be Inaccurate

breast cancer ribbon Many genealogists take the time to put together two different types of family trees. The traditional family tree shows connections between one ancestor and another. A medical family tree can give you, and your doctor, clues about health issues that you might be at risk for. However, if your medical family tree is inaccurate, then it isn’t of very much value after all.

When you gather information for a medical family tree, you are doing it for the purposes of creating a tool that could give you clues about your health. One of the important things to track for a medical family tree is instances where an ancestor or a living relative had some form of cancer.

We all share some genetics with our ancestors. Certain genetic mutations, or variations, can signal that a person has a higher risk of developing that particular form of cancer. Therefore, if you know that several of your relatives died from breast cancer, or colon cancer, for example, then you know that your risk of developing it is that much higher than the average population. It has been said that bringing your doctor a copy of your meticulously detailed medical family tree is useful. It could be used as a tool to indicate the types of tests or treatments that could, perhaps, be beneficial for you.

However, if your medical family tree is inaccurate, then it loses its value as a health tool. When you visit a doctor, you will be asked a lot of health questions. Many of these questions are not about your health, but are instead about the health of your close relatives, grandparents, and ancestors. Again, the purpose is so your doctor has a good idea about your risk for cancer.

A study that appears in the online version of the Journal of the National Cancer Institute finds that patient reports of family cancer are not highly accurate. The Connecticut Family Health Study included a survey that asked a representative sample of people who lived in Connecticut about the cancer diagnoses in their first and second degree relatives. It asked around 1,019 respondents about the cancer history of 20,578 relatives.

From this data, researchers chose to focus on four of the most common cancers in adults: breast, colorectal, prostate, and lung cancer. Next, they narrowed down the sample to 2,605 of the relatives of the respondents (which were randomly chosen). Then, they set out to find confirmation about those cancers. They looked in state cancer registries, Medicare, death certificates, and other health records.

The results showed that reports on relatives that had no cancer at all were highly accurate. The accuracy of reporting about relatives who had cancer, however, wasn’t so good. The inaccuracy varied by types of cancer. 61.1% accurately reported that a relative had breast cancer. 60.2% correctly reported that a relative had lung cancer, and 32% correctly reported that a relative had prostate cancer. Only 27.3% accurately reported that a relative had colorectal cancer. In addition, researchers found that reports about the health for first degree relatives was more accurate than were reports about second degree relatives.

Image by SCA Svenska Cellulosa Aktiebolaget on Flickr