I don’t know about you, but as I get older, aches and pains seem to be a major topic of conversation amongst the middle aged set.
Whether it is the latest medical treatment, the newest doctor, a shocking cholesterol reading, or a possible knee replacement, the Baby Boom generation is getting old and not going quietly into that good night. We talk about health all the time. My one regret is, I wished I had pursued candid conversations about health with my family members as much as I do my friends, and indeed--total strangers.
I know the big family health stories. Diabetes is the big one. As a kid, I was always puzzled when adults would murmur to each other when Uncle Pie (no really, I had an uncle nicknamed Pie. I had one called Puddin’ too, but that’s another story for another day) had his second slice of the delicious apple concoction. “He knows he has “sugar”. He should leave that pie alone.” they would whisper to everyone except Uncle Pie. What, I would think, could possibly be wrong with sugar? Early on I learned it was good to be called “sugar”, but not good to have sugar. Sugar=Diabetes.
Back in the day, people knew they had diabetes, but didn’t necessarily know what to do about it. So most of the time, they did nothing. And of course, the consequences were grim. But there were other ailments around too. Rheumatic Fever, all kinds of tumors and weird growths, cancer, skin ailments, gout, asthma--the list goes on and on. But in my family, we never talked openly about ailments. Sometimes, the adults would whisper about a relative, but very few conversations took place in the open. God forbid if it was “female trouble”--I couldn’t drag any information out of my mother on that topic if I tied her up and interrogated her under a bare lightbulb.
All of this family secrecy around health issues would be minor, EXCEPT, now that I am older, certain conditions are popping up and I have no idea if there is a family history of the ailment. For example, I have a condition called Frontal Fibrosing Alopecia. It is a rare condition, usually found in women of European Origin. If you can recall images of Queen Elizabeth I (not Prince Charles’ mother--the first one) with a hairline that goes WAY back on her head--that’s what I look like. The dermatologist asked if I knew of any balding patterns in women in my family. Well, most of my dad’s sisters wore wigs, but I have no idea of what was going on under them. My answer---I don’t know. The result: It took three times as long to diagnose what was going on with my hair loss.
My sister suffers from fibroid tumors and thyroid issues. Does that run in the family? We don’t know. I have flat feet. Does that run in the family? I think I remember Uncle Fred had problem with his feet, but I can’t be sure…
Since I am the youngest child of two parents who were the youngest in their families, at this point, there is not really anyone to go to to ask about family medical history. Frankly, its a little scary not to have any idea what health bombs might be lurking in the gene pool. And my husband is even more clueless about his family medical history than I am about mine.
What to do about this dilemma? I can’t change the past, nor can I question people who have passed on to the great beyond. But I can commit to breaking the cycle of silence on family health issues, no matter how awkward, embarrassing, inexplicable or unpleasant. I will be as honest and open about health, and bodies, and ailments with my children and relatives as I possibly can be. This doesn’t mean that I am going to talk about fertility issues with my 7-year old. But I will flag major health issues, like diabetes, and do my best to guide them into making choices to increase their chances of a future filled with good health. They shouldn’t have to guess what their medical future looks like, and they should not be confronted with surprises on issues as important as health.
If you have secrecy around your family, why not join me in rewriting family medical mystery books into open books on our family’s health history!