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Genetic Counseling Does Not Equal a Bilateral Mastectomy

by Sarah Ann Jackson, MS, CGC

Angelina Jolie’s recent editorial has inspired many to reflect upon their own family’s history of cancer, and will hopefully lead to the identification of additional individuals at high risk. Her article is inspiring, but also has the potential to scare the people who could most benefit from genetic counseling. 
It’s important to keep in mind that Ms. Jolie arrived at the decision to have surgery over a period of months. The physical, mental and logistical factors that led to her choice cannot be adequately conveyed in an article. 
Anyone concerned about a personal or family history of cancer should seek out a genetic counselor as their first step. Genetic counseling does not equal genetic testing, just as a positive BRCA genetic test result does not equal a bilateral mastectomy. A genetic counselor provides the facts before the test, including your specific risk of having a genetic mutation, whether you or a relative should have testing first, helping to determine the likelihood of insurance coverage for genetic testing, the medical implications of testing (there are options other than a bilateral mastectomy), and, most importantly, discussion about the limitations of genetic testing. It is not perfect and, unfortunately, some people receive an uncertain result.
Don’t let the fear of genetic testing or another individual’s choices prevent you from seeking genetic counseling. Genetic counselors are not merely people who order genetic testing.  We are advocates for patients in the prevention and early detection of cancer, which may or may not involve a genetic test.  Genetic counseling does not equal a bilateral mastectomy.
For information and appointment, contact Sarah Jackson at (312) 695-0320
Author Sarah Ann Jackson, MS, CGC, is a genetic counselor who is licensed by the state of Illinois and certified by the American Board of Genetic Counselors. She is currently a faculty member of the Northwestern University Genetic Counseling Program, and Assistant Professor of Medicine- Hematology/Oncology at the Feinberg School of Medicine.
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(Last updated on May 17, 2013 )