Turkey, potatoes and a side of family health history

Steve Spencer
Nov 13,2013

As you gather with your family during the upcoming holiday season, consider asking some nosy questions of your Aunt Miriam or Grandpa Russ. Questions such as: Have you ever had any serious illnesses? Do you have any chronic diseases? What diseases did our deceased relatives have?


Collecting your family health history is part of an initiative by the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services and the Office of the Surgeon General. The goal is to help trace illnesses that run in your family and predict whether you need to take action early in order to stay healthy.


Steve Spencer of Depoe Bay learned about the power of genetics and family history in the midst of a shocking cancer diagnosis.


“I had no clue I had cancer,” said Spencer, who was 55 at the time. “I went to the doctor because my leg was hurting and I was craving ice.”


A colonoscopy revealed a highly abnormal amount of polyps in the form of familial adenomatous polyposis, a condition that turns into colon cancer if left untreated.


“The doctors couldn’t believe I was still alive,” Spencer said. “They told me I should have been dead 10 years ago from this.” His health care providers moved quickly to remove the cancer, and Spencer underwent six months of chemotherapy at Samaritan North Lincoln Hospital.


Most physicians recommend a colonoscopy for patients starting at age 50. “I’d been told to have a colonoscopy but I just didn’t do it,” said Spencer. “I don’t know why.”


Spencer’s condition is genetic, often appearing during the teenage years. Because Spencer had been adopted as a newborn, he had no access to his biological family health history. After his bout with cancer, his children and grandchildren made appointments for screening.


The tests revealed that his son, daughter and a granddaughter had  the condition. His son’s condition, unfortunately, had progressed to cancer and he began treatment for the disease.


“I’m so thankful my experience could help the rest of my family,” said Spencer, who now understands that health knowledge is power — and the sooner you act on it, the better.


At family dinners this season, when you ask your Nana to please pass the cranberry sauce, start an important conversation about health. To find out what you should be asking, visit www.hhs.gov/familyhistory, and share that information with your health care provider.