What is Genetic Counseling?
Each year, millions of people undergo genetic testing to learn more about their risks for certain inherited diseases and whether they’re a carrier for certain conditions or if they have a genetic mutation in genes, like BRCA1 or BRCA2, which could lead to cancer. These tests are meant to provide people with the tools they need to make informed health decisions.
Genetic Counselor Awareness Day on Nov. 12, 2020 is a chance to celebrate the crucial role genetic counselors play in patient’s healthcare. A genetic counselor is a healthcare professional that has received specialized education in both genetics and counseling through a graduate degree program. Genetic counselors work in a variety of settings including cancer, prenatal, pediatrics, and others.
Regarding cancer genetics, appointments may involve the use of a person’s personal and/or family history of cancer to help determine if they may have been born with a higher risk than the general population to develop cancer and if genetic testing may be warranted.
Alora Terry, MS, LGC, is a licensed genetic counselor at Thompson Cancer Survival Center. She studied to become a genetic counselor because she is passionate about helping others through this field. She says, “I am able to help people better understand genetics, while also helping my patients and their families better understand their cancer risks and how those risks can be combatted.”
After a person’s personal and family history has been evaluated during an appointment, and it appears there is a chance that “cancer is running in the family” genetic testing can help determine if a person has a hereditary predisposition to cancer.
The most common referrals for genetic counseling are breast and colon cancer. Often, patients are referred to counselors like Terry from primary care physicians following an annual physical when a person tells their provider they are interested in testing. Many referrals also come from OBGYNs following a woman’s annual well-woman’s visit. Additionally, if an individual is battling cancer, that person and their family may be referred to a genetic counselor by a medical oncologist at one of the Thompson Cancer Survival Centers. Although these are the most common reason for referrals, any healthcare provider may place a referral for genetic counseling at Thompson Cancer Survival Center.
Some general guidelines for when a person may want to consider asking for a genetic counseling referral include:
- A personal history or a close relative with a history of:
- Breast, colon, or uterine cancer at 50 or younger
- Ovarian, pancreatic, or male breast cancer at any age
- Metastatic or high grade prostate cancer at any age
- Triple negative breast cancer at 60 or younger
- Two separate breast cancers in one person
- Colon or uterine/endometrial cancer with abnormal MMR
- A history of 10 or more precancerous colon polyps in one person
- Three people on one side of the family with the same or related cancers
- Known Ashkenazi Jewish ancestry
- A family member with a known mutation in a gene related to an increased risk of cancer
According to Terry, genetic testing allows you the opportunity to learn more about your health as it relates to what is being passed down through your family. She reports, “Genetic counseling aids a person to do this in a responsible way, with all the important information prior to pursuing testing to make a truly informed decision.”
Terry reminds the public that knowledge is power. “When an individual learns they were born with a higher risk of developing cancer it gives them the power to take preventative measures or additional screening to catch cancer at an earlier more treatable stage,” she states. “I truly believe the information a person obtains through genetic counseling may help save their life or possibly even the life of a loved one.”