SALT LAKE CITY (Good Things Utah) — Intermountain Healthcare has a robust genetic counseling team that has been helping patients navigate their cancer and chronic disease journey. But what is a genetic counselor and how can they help?

Genetic counselors are specialists who assess your personal and family health history and genetic test results to see if you have inherited risk for certain health conditions.

Genetic counseling can offer you and your provider guidance to best manage and/or reduce your risk of developing those diseases down the road.

Just like eye and hair color, genes that are known to mutate can also be passed along through families, and if you inherit a gene linked to cancer, you’re more likely to develop the disease — and could at a younger age. A simple blood test is all that is required for a genetic test, but the results can have significant implications.

“A genetic test can tell you if you carry a predisposition for certain cancers, such as such as hereditary breast and ovarian cancer,” said Nykole Sutherland, MS, CGC, a ‎clinical genetic counselor at Intermountain Healthcare. “The test also helps suggest if other family members are at risk.”

If you have a family history of certain types of cancer, then you are a good candidate for genetic testing. Prior to the test, most patients receive a referral to a genetic counselor by their physician.

The counselor will provide a detailed risk assessment, which includes drawing a full family tree to determine if there are hereditary signs of cancer. The genetic counselor helps patients know what to expect with the test, what the results mean, and the benefits and limitations of this information. 

“For example, if the result is positive, meaning a genetic change was found that is known to increase the risk for certain cancers, the genetic counselor will go over the medical recommendations for cancer prevention and who else in the family should consider being tested.,” said Sutherland.

Even if genetic testing doesn’t identify an explanation, personalized recommendations for cancer surveillance and prevention are still provided based on the family cancer history, she noted.

Genetic counselors have been hard at work, especially with the Intermountain HerediGene: Population Study. Participants of the study who have a positive gene mutation result will receive a letter to contact a genetic counselor to learn more about the findings.

The Intermountain HerediGene: Population Study is the world’s largest initiative to map the DNA of an entire population and will benefit patients for years to come, but for a 25-year-old Utah woman, her participation in this groundbreaking study has already proved to be lifesaving.  Thus far, nearly 150,000 people have enrolled in the innovative study. 

Those who are concerned about a specific disease risk based on their personal and/or family history should still seek out specialized genetic testing with the help of their doctor or a genetic counselor.

If you would like to find out more about genetic counselors, visit intermountainhealthcare.org/genomics.



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