Finding Distant Relatives

Finding Ancestors and Distant Relatives

It can be intimidating to find and contact relatives that you've never met or haven't seen in many years. How do you start?

Start With Who and What You Know

Start by listing information about family members that you already know. List the following information if available:

  • Name
  • Biological relationship to you and/or each other (including whether they are on your mother's or father's side)
  • Approximate age
  • Whether they are living or deceased.
  • Cancer history (type of cancer, age of diagnosis)
  • Genetic testing results (for your variant or other genes)

Your list can include parents, siblings, children, and any other relatives you know.

Drawing Your Family Tree

If you have had genetic counseling, you might have a copy of your family history or pedigree. This can be helpful in laying out all of the family relationships and health histories. You can also make your own family tree or pedigree using an online family tree maker such as Family Echo or through genealogy services such as ancestry.com. You might prefer to draw a family tree instead of making a list.

Talking with Living Relatives to Find Additional Relatives

Once you've laid out information on relatives you know, you may want to double-check your family history with other relatives. You can make sure you haven't left out any relatives or missed any health history.

Many of your relatives who might have your variant may not have had known cancer diagnoses. Try to build a complete pedigree of everyone whether they have had cancer or not.

Remember that your variant will only be found in people biologically related to you. It will not be found in family members who are related by adoption or by marriage.

Expanding Outwards and Downwards (Newer Generations)

You can expand your family tree by adding distant relatives in your generation and newer generations.  Contacting an aunt or uncle (or great-aunt or great-uncle) directly can be useful for learning about these relatives. Ask if your aunts and uncles have children or grandchildren. While you may be in touch with some cousins, nieces, and nephews, you may not know everybody.

Ask for contact information for other relatives. Many people won't share health information about their own relatives, either due to its personal nature or simply because they don't know, but they might be willing to help you get contact information so you can ask directly.

Expanding Outwards and Upwards (Older Generations)

If your grandparents and other older relatives are living, they will most likely know all of their siblings and children. Contacting your grandparents will help make sure you aren't missing any of your aunts, uncles, or grand-uncles or –aunts.

Ask these relatives about their parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, nieces and nephews. While you might have this information already, checking this information won't hurt. Different people will know medical information for different family members.

Your great-grandparents are less likely to be living, but you can ask for contact information for your grand-uncles and -aunts (grandparents' siblings) and distant cousins.

Using Online Genealogy Tools to Find Your Ancestors

Online genealogy and social networking tools have made contacting relatives and finding ancestors much easier. Documents about your ancestors, such as birth certificates, can be found in online public databases. There are several websites dedicated to genealogy and family history. A few are listed below.

  • familysearch.org – The largest free genealogy website. Sponsored by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, this site features family tree building software and online access indexed databases of family history documents such as census, birth, and death records. Free online training tools and help with family history searches are also available.
  • myheritage.com – This site features family tree building software and online access indexed databases of family history documents. There are both free and subscription based premium searches available.
  • ancestry.com – One of the largest genealogy websites gives online access many digitized and indexed family history documents such as census, birth, and death records. It is also a large online community of people interested in family history that facilitates social networking and crowd sourcing for collaborative family history research. A subscription is necessary for most searches.
  • geni.com – A genealogy website with the aim of helping users connect with each other through social medial to find ancestors and relatives. Founders are interested in research through genealogy. A subscription is necessary for most searches.

You don't need to sign up for a genealogy website to find information about your relatives. There are many archives of public records. You can start by looking at the links below.

  • The USGenWeb Project is a good place to start to see what is available from different states and counties in the United States.
  • Death certificates – These are public records that contain names and death dates. They often also have health information related to the causes of death and the age of death. They are considered public information and are often available online from many state records' offices. Although some information may be available online, you may need to order a copy of your ancestors death certificate to get complete death certificate information. Funeral homes may also have copies of death certificates that they can share with you. Death certificate ordering policies vary by state.
  • Census records – In the United States, census records before 1940 are considered public records. Census records contain the names of individuals living in a household. These might help find branches of your family that you were not aware of.