Most often, my clients describe the process of writing their family history as “fascinating” and “cathartic.” Other words that crop up are “illuminating,” “therapeutic,” and “thought-provoking.” But not until I read a recent article in the Washington Post did I consider that writing one’s family history could be legitimately referred to as “life-saving.”
The article – Did your aunt have cancer? Knowing could save your life.—cites powerful data correlating family medical history and the development of disease. Consider these numbers: One in three cancers has a genetic component; six in ten cases of alcoholism do. Diabetes, dementia, heart disease, asthma, and schizophrenia are all partly hereditary. And the list goes on.
According to geneticist Joe Nadeau, “The conventional family history is still the best predictor of disease risk.”
Few sit down and discuss family medical history as a matter of course. And with the absence of this information, generations are unaware of their risk for disease. Risks which, today, often can be treated preemptively. By writing family memoirs, and including the health history of immediate relatives, authors can share life-saving information with children, grandchildren, and beyond.
Those who seek to include this information – good for you! – should be aware of potential barriers that await them in their research. Stigma associated with mental illness, for example, may keep some from disclosing a relative’s schizophrenia or depression, diseases which are both genetic and treatable with today’s medicine. A family’s battle with alcoholism is often kept under wraps, preventing younger generations from heeding caution or abstention when making their own choices around alcohol. Even breast cancer was considered shameful not too long ago. When Grandma stays mum about her breast cancer saga, she prevents future generations from pursuing today’s science, which may reduce or even eliminate their chances of developing the disease.
As new terminologies come into vogue, today’s memoirists struggle with correctly interpreting medical jargon from yesteryear. Tuberculosis, epilepsy, and stroke, for example, all went by different names just a few decades ago (consumption, falling sickness, and apoplexy, respectively). There must be clear definitions when different generations come together to review medical history.
Regardless of what keeps us from discussing our health – whether it’s stigma, language, or the always-popular denial – family stories allow for the opportunity to break through barriers and share the truth of genetics. By sharing your history, you remove shame from the conversation and convey the reality of being human in a world with disease. When you disclose your family’s medical history with your children and grandchildren, you give them the gift of knowledge.
So yes, writing your family story indeed can be “life-saving.”
Talk to a personal historian about starting your memoirs today.