Genetic Counseling... Ever Heard of It?
By Kaliwood on February 13, 2014
I'm so glad to have my good friend Justine today to share a bit about her career. Genetics has always been so interesting to me ever since learning about it in high school! And Justine has made a career of it! Check out her unique job and how they provide some great resources for women! Take it away, Justine!
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I’m excited to share a little bit about my profession with all of you Kaliwood folks today! Most people have never heard of my job and usually the following dialogue happens shortly after meeting someone new:
New person: “So, what do you do?”
Me: “I’m a genetic counselor.”
New person: “Oh cool. (Pause). Soooo, what’s a genetic counselor?”
Well, folks...today I will answer that question for you!
According to the National Society of Genetic Counselors (NSGC) definition, a genetic counselor is someone who helps people understand and adapt to the medical, psychological, and familial implications of genetic contributions to disease. We do this by interpreting family and medical histories to assess the chance of disease, educating about inheritance, testing, management, prevention, resources, and research, and by counseling to promote informed choices and adaptation to the disease.
Genetic counselors have a Master of Science degree in Genetic Counseling (yes, a very specific degree!) and can work in a variety of specialties including prenatal, pediatrics, cancer, cardiac, and neurology. I do a little bit of everything in my current position, but the majority of patients I work with have a personal or family history of cancer, so I’ll focus on cancer genetics for today.
In my job as a genetic counselor, I see people who have had cancer at a young age (under 50 years old) or who have a family history of certain cancers to discuss the chance that the cancer is hereditary. We also discuss the option of genetic testing (if appropriate) and what information that can give them, as well as other family members. I provide risk-assessments to patients to help determine their lifetime chance for developing a particular cancer based on their personal and/or family history information. I can then give them the information that they need to make an informed decision about management options (including screening, surgery, medications). Knowledge is power, people!
I’m sure most of you heard about Angelina Jolie having her breasts removed last year because of her family history and a particular gene called BRCA.
She didn’t have cancer, but chose to have her breasts removed as a preventative option. Well, Ms. Jolie went to see a genetic counselor (like me!) prior to doing the testing so that she could discuss the risks associated, as well as what her options would be if she was found to have a BRCA mutation.
Okay, let’s take a step back to high school biology for those of you who don’t deal with genetics stuff on the reg.
What the eff is a “gene?” Well, our genes are basically the blueprints for our bodies: they tell us how to grow and develop, what color our eyes are, what color our hair is (before we dump dye on it), etc. We also have genes that help protect us against certain cancers. One example is the BRCA genes. Everyone has these genes (yes, even men!) and they are there to help protect us against breast and ovarian cancer. If there is a change (or what we call a “mutation”) in one of those genes, they can’t do their job like they should and can’t protect us against breast and ovarian cancer like they should, so we see higher risks for those cancers if someone has a BRCA mutation. In general, hereditary cancers are not very common (only 5-10% of all cancers are hereditary), but for those with a hereditary cancer or a strong family history of a particular cancer, they may have much higher risks for certain cancers than the average person.
So why would someone want to know if they have a higher chance of developing cancer? Wouldn’t that freak them out?! You can’t change your genes, right? Well, if someone is found to have a mutation that puts them at a higher cancer risk, we can’t change their genes, but there are different screenings and surgical options available to them to help reduce cancer or to find it at the earliest stage possible. As a genetic counselor, I review all of the available options with patients and help them pick the best option for them. Not everyone chooses to take the route and have bilateral mastectomies like Angelina Jolie did, but I’ve had many patients who do choose that route.
Some people think my job must be sad or depressing dealing with cancer patients all the time, but on most days it’s not. I’m giving patients information that they can use to feel empowered and in control of their health! If they haven’t had cancer but have a strong family history of it, I’m giving them the tools and information they need to reduce their chances of developing cancer. If they have already had a cancer diagnosis, I’m giving them information about reducing the risk of another cancer diagnosis as well as ways that they can help family members reduce their cancer risks as well. Cancer can be a scary thing, but knowing what your risks are and what steps you can take to reduce those risks can be a very powerful thing!
So, who should see a cancer genetic counselor? Anyone with any of the following:
-A personal or family history of breast cancer, colon cancer, or uterine cancer diagnosed before age 50
-A personal or family history of ovarian cancer at any age
-Multiple relatives on the same side of the family with the same or related cancers
-A personal or family history of an individual with multiple primary cancer diagnoses
-A personal or family history of male breast cancer
-A known hereditary cancer syndrome in the family
For more information on genetic counseling or to find a genetic counselor in your area, feel free to visit www.nsgc.org.
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