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Know Your Family History: My Gallbladder Story

Last Updated Friday, May 04, 2012 2:12:20 PM

Melanie NorallFor the past year or so, I've had occasional sharp pains in my right shoulder blade (always in the same spot) and sometimes felt a bit sick to my stomach after going out to dinner. But my symptoms were always short-term and sporadic--the pain would come on at night but would always be gone in the morning, causing me to think that perhaps I had just imagined it. But in January 2012, I was in so much pain I went to the ER at 3 a.m. in tears. Blood work and an ultrasound revealed I had something I had not expected at all--gallstones (hard, pebble-like deposits that form inside the gallbladder).

When I met with my surgeon for the first time to discuss gallbladder surgery, the question she asked immediately was: "Have any of your relatives had gallstones?"

If it had been a week earlier, I probably would have said "no." In fact, when I called my mom to ask about family history of gallstones, she remembered that my niece had had problems in her teens, but that was about it. So I asked her to check with my cousins (her sister's kids). As it turns out, two of my five cousins on the Swedish side of the family had had their gallbladders removed in their 40s due to gallstones. And, after talking with my niece, who has Swedish heritage from her dad (my brother) and Finnish heritage from her mom, I learned that gallstones are common on the Finnish side of our family as well (her mother and grandmother both had them).

With all this family history, along with vague comments about other, more distant Swedish relatives dying from unknown gastrointestinal illness, you would think I would be very aware that this was something I should have shared with my physician years ago.

But I wasn't at all aware. I live on the West Coast; my family lives on the East Coast. And we just don't get together that often to sit around the table and talk about our medical history.

Yet knowing your family medical history can help you immensely. If I had known my family history, I might have been able to recognize the signs of gallstones. And it certainly would have helped my doctors in their diagnoses. (Genetic experts say that gallstones tend to run in families, and the risk is doubled if one has a first-degree relative with gallstones.)

Moreover, according to one study by Thomas Jefferson University, "Some of the highest incidence of gallstone disease is seen in the Scandinavian countries." (Native Americans and Mexican-Americans are two other ethnic groups where gallstones are even more common.) And gallstones tend to affect women--particularly women of childbearing age--more than men.

So, the next time you gather with relatives, ask the tough questions about your family's medical history. Bring a checklist of diseases you're concerned about--it could be gallstones, or heart disease, or cancer, perhaps. Use the El Camino Hospital Family Medical History Tool to help you keep track.

Not only will it save you a lot of medical visits down the road, in some cases, it could save your life.

Melanie Norall is a part-time writer for El Camino Hospital. She thanks her many El Camino Hospital colleagues who have helped her understand gallbladder disease and treatment, especially gastroenterologist Sanjay Ramrakhiani and post-op nurse Debbie Smyth.

More Info: El Camino Hospital's Genomic Medicine Institute has information on many diseases that run in families.

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