ROCHESTER, Minn. — People dealing with a diagnosis of cancer or a genetic condition might benefit from seeing a genetic counselor. The February issue of Mayo Clinic Women’s HealthSource covers the role of genetic counselors and common reasons that people seek their expertise.
A genetic counselor reviews personal and family history to assess the risk of disease development or recurrence, interprets medical data and test results, discusses the pros and cons of genetic testing, and provides education about disease prevention, screening and treatment.
Genetic counselors have specialized graduate degrees and training in genetics and counseling. However, they aren’t doctors and don’t provide specific recommendations about testing or treatment.
Carrie Zabel is a board-certified genetic counselor at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. She provides patients with information needed to make informed medical decisions and to help them adapt to information that may have medical and psychological implications for themselves and their families.
"I most often see individuals who have had one or more family members with a certain type of cancer and who want to know what this may mean for them," says Zabel. Certain genes can be singled out for testing and will help determine if someone is at higher risk of developing breast, ovarian, colon and uterine cancers.
Women or couples considering pregnancy often seek out genetic counseling when there are questions about the likelihood of a child being born with a genetic condition or birth defect.
A genetic counselor may provide insight about chronic illnesses, such as heart disease, even when these illnesses aren’t associated with a specific gene. The counselor may be able to establish a level of risk for the chronic illness based on the number of relatives with the condition, at what age the illness occurred, and what environmental and lifestyle factors family members share.
It’s important for people to gather family medical histories prior to seeing a genetic counselor. The U.S. surgeon general offers a free online resource, "My Family Health Portrait," to help organize family medical histories. It can be found at https://familyhistory.hhs.gov.