Although April was National Minority Health Month, health awareness should be an ongoing effort, and knowledge about the prevalence of a disease within a family structure is important to all of us, particularly to immigrant families because we are scattered across the globe with infrequent communication. For example, while a cousin is diagnosed with breast cancer in the U.S., another is diagnosed with colon cancer in Iran, and a third with heart disease in Australia.

Developing a family health history and sharing it with one another is a great way of keeping everyone aware and healthy. We can all be on the lookout for early signs of a disease that runs in the family and take part in appropriate screenings.
Your family health history is important information for you and your doctor because it can identify whether you have a higher risk for some diseases.

For example, if cancer or heart disease runs in your family you have a greater chance of developing these conditions. If your doctor is aware of this history, he/she can recommend actions to reduce your risk of developing the disease or teach you about looking for early warning signs.

The Surgeon General’s “My Family Health Portrait” is an easy to use, online tool, for recording your family health history.

After you enter your information it develops a family tree that you can download for sharing with your doctor or family. (The system doesn’t hold your information so you don’t have to worry about it being used by or shared with other people.)

Consider discussing [the questions on the form] with your family because some members may be aware of a health history that you are not.

My family learned this lesson the hard way: Personally, I always thought our grandmother had died of heart disease, but, two years ago my cousin was diagnosed with breast cancer when no one else is our family had ever been diagnosed or treated for any type of cancer. As we were trying to understand the cause of her condition, we learned from a family elder that our grandmother had suffered from months of stomach pain before her death. The pain was later associated with cancer, possibly breast cancer that had spread.

We have made sure that everyone in the family has been made aware of this health history. We are most vigilant about having mammograms as recommended and our male cousins have become more observant of having colonoscopies when another cousin was diagnosed with advanced colon cancer. This has been a difficult lesson for all of us; but as a result, we have become far more open and communicative. We are trying hard to develop a family health portrait for our use and that of the next generation.

Be in control of your health, both now and in the future, by visiting the Human Health Services’ “My Family Health Portrait”.

There is so much more to learn about this tool. The software that makes the tool function is Microsoft HealthVault. For assistance, contact the Application Support Desk at the National Cancer Institute’s Center for Biomedical Informatics and Information Technology (CBIIT) at or by calling 888.478.4423 (toll free).

“My Family Health Portrait” has certain limitations. For example, it doesn’t tell you what to do to reduce your risk factors. You should consult with your doctor about advice based on your family health history information. And remember to share what you know with your family.