How Cancer Changed My Outlook on Family History

After being challenged with completing 2,016 minutes of family history work throughout the year, I set out to meet that goal. I tried; I really did! 

I easily registered on all the sites.
I found my own records, along with those of my children. 
I searched for my parents and began to follow their lines back to further generations. 

It was going so well that I was excited to do more. Once I simply merged my information with my parents’, my genealogy would also be completed several generations back. Easy, peasy!

But, I couldn't get it to work. Was I really going to have to reenter information that was already correct in another place? Shouldn’t I be able to link to my mother and have all of her ancestors’ names linked to me, as well? Isn’t that what computers do? Suddenly, my well-intentioned goals turned into the mandatory shutting down of my laptop before I threw it across the room in frustration. 

Apparently, it is not my season for that kind of family history. However, I still wanted to fulfill my challenge of yearly goals, preferably without damage to computers or to others. 

Then it hit me: I have stage 4 cancer and have only been given 3-5 years to live. The most important family history work I can possibly do at this stage in my life is to start with my personal history and teach my children to keep theirs. For, if I don’t do it, who will? How will my children know all the stories, the important dates from their youth, or who their mother was if I don’t do the work? 

My family history talents do not lie in indexing and computer programs, but I have been able to meet family history goals by working on these personal history projects, those that only I could complete for my posterity.    

1. Record It--Literally!

I remember a cassette tape my father has of his grandfather telling stories and sharing testimonies.  These are memories that can only be captured if recorded. Shortly after my cancer diagnosis, a friend stressed the importance of making videos for my children. With all the technology available these days, it became a priority to record my voice, my face, me personally speaking to my children, for their use after I’m gone. 

Similarly, it’s important to film our children in different phases, for those adorable, high-pitched toddler voices become deeper and grown faster than we expect. What treasures those videos become when lives change as quickly as we know they do. 

2. Scan, Scan, Scan!

Believe it or not, the digital world is still quite young in the grand scheme of things. Real film was still required for photography on my wedding day! The negatives of those photos are long gone, so it’s been on my to-do list to scan in all of those precious memories that would otherwise be lost, should some kind of natural disaster occur. By scanning in a little each week, those photos become digital and easily retrievable. In addition to scanning my photos, I have also been clocking family history minutes by scanning letters, documents, kids’ art projects, and other memories (even for my mother!). Not only does scanning clear clutter, it assists in organizing and categorizing important paper records. 

3. Organize & Archive Photos

We all have them: hundreds of photos sitting in our phones or computers. Without a clear and easy organizational strategy, years and years of photos become clumped together, making it time consuming to locate certain files when needed. It might take time to set up an organization system, but it can be easily maintained afterward. The system that works best for me is both a monthly and yearly organization. I created folders for pictures taken in each month. Those folders are placed inside a yearly folder. When the year is over, each yearly folder goes into a “family photos” file. By using this organization method, I only need to remember the year and approximate month a photo was taken in order to locate it.   

Once organized, it is also important to backup these precious files. After I make the monthly folders for my photos, I save them accordingly on an external hard drive. In addition, I upload my pictures, one month at a time, to an online photo-hosting service, one that can store photos, allow me to share them with others, and print them when/if the time comes. 

4. Book It! 

Actual photographs are powerful. We’ve gotten away from the days of taking pictures, developing the film, and having real photos to review. With so much access to digital photos, many of our memories stay forever stored in their digital forms. However, it’s still important to print out pictures!

I was so far behind in scrapbooking, that I finally made time this year to begin. I borrowed the idea from friends to create family yearbooks online and simply print out enough copies for each member of the family. Costs add up quickly, but I create the books when I have time, save them online, and wait for 50% off everything photo sales before ordering. I use the same photo-hosting service that stores my photos online to create my books, but there are also companies that create books directly from social media. My children love seeing themselves in print, and I have seen so much enjoyment from those books, which also help cement and preserve memories. 

5. Journal

We think we’ll remember important things, but we don’t unless they are written down! There are countless ways to record and journal life’s most important milestones, the trick is finding something that you can keep up with. I have a family blog that helps me record important memories of our lives, family vacations and other traditions, as well as the hard and happy of daily life. In addition, it helps us keep connected with family members who live far away. When looking back, it’s amazing how many funny things my kids have said that I might have forgotten, had I recorded them on our blog.  

have also started keeping a scripture journal this year. As I read, I write down thoughts and lines of scripture that are meaningful to me and why. Hopefully, this journal will be uplifting and an example of my testimony for others. Other journaling ideas include keeping notes in your phone, a gratitude journal, recording one line a day of something you learned, and writing letters to specific people, to be opened at times in the future.   

6. Help Kids Journal

Teaching children to journal when they are young will help them continue when they’re older.  Journaling could be as simple as using social media to record important events, but it’s important to teach children to think before posting, especially since words on the internet cannot be easily erased and will be read by others.

In our home, we have traditions which help children journal the milestones of life: birthday (and half birthday) interviews, journaling about the first day of school and last day of school, and a family thankful journal for Thanksgiving. Since we already discuss the best and worst of each day, I’m sure I could help my children learn to record it. I also have my children help me organize their sports memorabilia, school papers and art in order to learn to make their own decisions on what to keep and how to keep it.    


Once I began working on all of these types of personal family history, I easily surpassed the yearly goal of 2,016 minutes. In addition, my heart has turned to recording, organizing, and teaching my children to prepare memories that will—hopefully--turn their hearts back to mine after I’m gone (see Malachi 4:6). Even better, now that I'm caught up on my personal history, I no longer have excuses about getting back on the computer....

Melodee Cooper is a Texan by birth, an Aggie by choice, the wife of a fellow Aggie because “he loves her more,” and a mother of three boys by a combination of time, modern science, and divine intervention. She has taught both 5th and 6th grade math and science, and is now able to be a stay-at-home mom, an amateur decorator, a crafter, a blogger, and a holiday enthusiast. She is battling Stage 4 cancer while remaining optimistic and grateful for the blessings in her life.

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