What is a genetic counselor?

Posted 8 months ago

What is a Genetic Counselor?

I get this question a lot when I tell someone what I do for a living. Some people’s minds may travel to “designer babies”, while others think back to the movie, GATTACA. Although these topics do relate to genetics, both are false portrayals of what genetic counselors do day-to-day.

So what is a genetic counselor? A genetic counselor is a trained medical professional who can help patients understand how genetics may play a role in their personal and/or family history. Through personal and family history assessments, genetic counselors can help identify someone’s risk for having a genetic condition, and sometimes follow up with genetic testing. There are several specialties within genetic counseling, and more specialties are being established over time as the field continues to grow. These specialties include cancer, prenatal, pediatrics, general adult, teratology, neurology, cardiology, and so on.

To become a genetic counselor, an individual must complete a two-year master’s degree at an accredited university genetic counseling program. Within these two years, students complete rigorous coursework in genetics, as well as fieldwork rotations in many of the different specialties. Genetic counseling students also typically must complete a master’s thesis that consists of a research project of their choice. Upon graduation, individuals receive their Master of Science in genetic counseling. Afterward, genetic counselors must pass the national ABGC board exam to become certified/licensed genetic counselors. This is how genetic counselors go from having “GC” to having “CGC” after their name. Interestingly, the field is primarily women-dominated, with about 88.1% of genetic counselors being women and 11.9% of genetic counselors being men.

The genetic conditions that genetic counselors look for in patients are caused by alterations in your DNA. Your DNA is metaphorically described as the blueprint for your body, containing all of the directions and codes to make your body function each day. The individual codes in this blueprint are called genes. You have two copies of all of your genes, and you get one from each of your parents. When we find spelling errors in these genes, sometimes those errors can cause a gene to “turn off” or not function how it should – this is what genetic testing looks for. These variations in DNA, also called “mutations”, may cause someone to have different genetic conditions. These conditions can be related to an increased risk for cancer, heart disease, and so forth, depending on the mutation. Here at Ironwood, we specifically order cancer genetic testing. The genes that we test for are in charge of protecting us against certain types of cancers. When we find certain types of mutations in cancer genes, it means that an individual may be born with an increased risk for cancer in comparison to the general population.

As the field continues to evolve, genetic counseling has become more accessible and affordable. Genetic testing is often covered by health insurance when the patient’s personal or family history meets testing criteria. Many labs also have a flat cash price of $250 for genetic testing if your insurance does not cover it. Here at Ironwood, we have two genetic counselors on staff, Mandy Kass, MS, CGC, and Morgan Gaynor, MS, CGC. If your doctor sees something in your personal or family history that makes them suspicious that there may be a genetic predisposition in your family, they may refer you to us to take a closer look at your personal and family history. In these consults, we may ask you questions about your personal and family history, such as ages of diagnosis and the size of your family tree. We’ll also discuss genetic testing and whether it may be helpful to you. Mandy and I see patients in person and via telehealth consults.

If you live out of state or are not a patient at Ironwood, or if you’re looking for a genetic counselor in a different specialty, you can go to www.findageneticcounselor.com to find a genetic counselor near you.


Morgan Gaynor, MS, CGC

Morgan Nicholl-Lewandowsk

Supportive Care Services Department

Morgan Gaynor Joined Ironwood Cancer & Research Centers In May 2022. She Earned Her B.S. In Molecular Biology And Genetics From Regis University And Earned Her M.S. In Genetic Counseling From The University Of Arizona.

During Her Time At The University Of Arizona, Morgan Completed A Two-Year Graduate Program And A Thesis On Best Practices In Counseling Low-Level Pathogenicity Results In Cancer Genetics Settings. She Completed Clinical Rotations At Prominent Healthcare Systems Such As Banner, Mayo Clinic, Color Genomics, Phoenix Children’s Hospital, And Dignity Health. During Her Time At These Institutions, She Gained Experience In Prenatal, Cancer, Cardiology, Pediatrics, And Pharmacogenomics Counseling.

Morgan Enjoys Running, Swimming, Cycling, Playing Piano, Hiking, And Spending Time With Her Family.

Please ask your Ironwood Cancer & Research Centers doctor for a referral to see our genetic counselor.