Knowing your family's medical history can help determine the age at which you should start getting regular mammograms. Fifty is the recommended age for lower-risk women. However, if breast cancer runs in your family—especially if your mother or sister has it—your mammograms should start before the age of 50.

According to the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), a recent survey of patients revealed that 96 percent of Americans feel it's important to know their family medical history. However, only one-third attempts to get a complete picture of their medical background.

The HHS website provides a tool that was developed by the Surgeon General called "My Family Health Portrait." The tool allows you to complete a history profile that you can print and share with family members for future reference. You can also give a copy to your doctor. Change the information any time you receive updates or add more children to your family.

The tool is completely private; no government agency is able to track or access the information. If you wish to maintain the information online and make it accessible to others, Microsoft provides a "HealthVault" website here.

Beginning the Conversation

You’ll have to start a dialogue with family members to begin gathering information about your family’s medical history. You probably won't have difficulty discussing health matters if they’re open and honest. However, some families feel uncomfortable discussing private issues and may not be receptive to your questions.

When opening the discussion, stress the likelihood of inherited traits that would put you or your children at risk for diseases such as cancer or diabetes. Talk about the importance of beginning breast cancer screenings at an earlier age if family history puts you at risk. If your family understands why you want to know their health history, they may be more willing to share.

Dealing with Skeptical Family Members

Obtaining all the information you need can be difficult. Many people consider health issues private matters. Your family may have an underlying prejudice against the healthcare industry due to past experiences. A cultural barrier may also be problematic.

Cultural ideas about why people suffer diseases—for example, that disease is a punishment from a deity for past life transgressions—may prohibit or obstruct full disclosure. If you’re met with a closed-door mentality, try talking with other family members or friends. You may be able to piece together the information you need.

Many times, a person simply doesn’t have a complete picture of their history. They may feel embarrassed that they don't know the answers to your questions. Your questions may bring to light the fact that a woman in your family hasn’t been screened for breast cancer. Assure your family members that your aim is to ensure the health of everyone in the family—not to shame or blame them.

Getting a complete family medical history can save you time and worry about your risk factors for developing breast cancer. Get the conversation rolling and begin the screenings that could save the life of someone in your family.