Picture this. You are at a friendly get together mingling with new people. You are engaged in polite small talk and a familiar question comes up, “So, what do you do?” For me the answer is, “I am a genetic counselor.” 95% of the time the response I receive is a polite smile followed by a bit of a blank stare and then, “What is that?” So what exactly is a genetic counselor? You are about to find out.
Let’s start by breaking down the title genetic counselor. Genetic is something to do with genes or heredity, and counselor is a person trained to give guidance. Therefore, a genetic counselor gives guidance relating to genes or heredity. This sounds pretty straight forward, but being a genetic counselor is much more than guiding a person’s genes. The National Society of Genetic Counselors, an organization that promotes and supports genetic counselors, describes genetic counselors as healthcare providers who help “…understand and adapt to the medical, psychological and familial implications of genetic contributions to disease.” This is a great description, one definitely well-crafted from a reputable organization. I like to provide a more basic description of genetic counselors as genetics nerds who really like puzzles and helping people. So why would a puzzle loving nerd who likes human interaction become involved in your medical care? There are several reasons, and the list continues to grow.
Genetic counselors appeared about 20 years after the discovery of the structure of DNA in the 1950’s. With this discovery genes, (a unit of heredity transferred from parent to offspring that determines some characteristic of the offspring), were identified and their effects on health began to be recognized. Genetics was and continues to be a complex field that only becomes more complicated with new discoveries and technology. Currently there are thousands of genetic tests offered by hundreds of genetic testing laboratories. Determining what these tests are and how the results can affect health and patients’ lives is where genetic counselors become a crucial part of the care team. Genetic counselors guide patients, their families and other healthcare providers through the complex world of genetic testing providing education, advocacy, and support so that patients can make difficult decisions and live the best life for themselves. Whether this means learning about risks to an unborn child, increased personal risks for cancer or heart disease, or obtaining a difficult diagnosis for a family member genetic counselors help patients to be supported and empowered throughout the process. Genetic counselors do not make designer babies or have the ability to tell the future. We do try to make a complex field less intimidating and support people and families along the way.
If you are interested in learning more about genetic counselors please check out this YouTube video for more details of what a genetic counselor is and how they can become involved in your care.
~ Katie Lemas, MS, CGC
Grand Valley Oncology