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This taboo Thanksgiving topic could save your life

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It may not be a fun discussion, but public health officials hope people will use Thanksgiving to talk with their loved ones about family health and health history.
Philippe Huguen | AFP | Getty Images file

Dr. Jane Korn recalls talking with her sister seven years ago about a mutual acquaintance who had just died from breast cancer. It rattled her sister that the woman had died so young.

"She was saying, 'God, you know, I wonder if we should get tested?'" said Korn, adding that the question took her by surprise. She's the medical director for health promotion and chronic disease at the Minnesota Department of Health but never thought she might be at any serious risk for cancer.

Somewhat spooked, Korn started collecting her family's health history. Her research led her to discover a family gene mutation that greatly increased her risk for cancer. 

At age 55, Korn had her ovaries removed. Her doctor also suggested a breast MRI, even though her mammogram had been normal just seven months earlier. The MRI turned up a small cancer. It was removed and now Korn is cancer free.

For her, the lesson is clear: Families need to talk to each other about their health and health history. 

While it may not be the most pleasant Thanksgiving topic, public health officials say the Thursday holiday is a perfect time to get the conversation rolling. For some families, it could be the difference between relief and heartbreak.

Many relatives don't consider the implications for others in their family when they receive a diagnosis for breast cancer, heart disease, diabetes or other diseases that may connect families for generations, said Mary Ahrens, a genetic counselor at the University of Minnesota.

Relatives may have important information and simply not volunteer it, she added.

"Somebody came in to see me and we identified a gene and they went back and talked to their relatives who said, 'Oh yeah, we knew about that gene. We just didn't think it was important to let you know,'" Ahrens said. "That didn't go well in the family, believe me."

Korn believes her early diagnosis saved her life and she made it her mission to tell all of her relatives what she found out as she plumbed the family history. 

She knew that her grandmother had been diagnosed with breast cancer at an early age. But her grandmother and her father were no longer alive to provide more details. Reliable information about other relatives' health was even more scarce.

"I remember asking around, like 'Does anybody know actually what Aunt Shirley died from? What did she have?'" she said. "Some people thought she had colon cancer. And I thought, 'I bet she had ovarian cancer.'"

Korn thought it was ovarian cancer because her father's family descends from Ashkenazi Jews, whose origins are in Eastern Europe. They have a higher risk of breast and ovarian cancer than the general population. 

She didn't have a lot to go on but shared what she knew with a genetic counselor, who immediately recommended genetic testing that led to the cancer discovery and its removal.

Since then, she said, many members of her immediate and extended family have gotten genetic tests and learned that they, too, carry the potentially fatal mutation. Korn said that includes her daughter as well as her first cousin and her daughters. 

Her  brother also has the BRCA gene mutation, which mean he's at elevated risk for male breast cancer and could pass the mutation on to his kids. 

"So we have a lot of it in our family," she said. "And it all started with me finding out, and all the rest followed from that."

While Thanksgiving may be a good time to bring up family health, Ahrens acknowledged it's awkward to get the ball rolling.  

So she recommends pinning it on your doctor or genetic counselor. 

She offered an icebreaker that family members can take to the dinner table Thursday: "They said I needed to find out more information, that it wasn't really clear and that it would help assess my risk of this condition if I knew what was going on with other relatives."