Genetic Counselors Struggle To Keep Up With Huge New Demand

Erika Stallings’ mom was diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 28. When it came back in her early 40s, her physicians started looking for clues.

“That’s when the doctors realized there may be something genetic going on, and that’s when she was tested, and found out she was a carrier for BRCA2,” said Stallings.

BRCA1 and BRCA2 are genes. Carrying a mutated BRCA gene increases a person’s risk for developing certain cancers, including breast and ovarian cancer.

Because Erika Stallings’ mom tested positive, Erika had a 50 percent chance of inheriting a mutated BRCA2 gene.

But Erika was only 22 years old when she learned of her mother’s diagnosis and not yet ready to put herself through the testing process.

“I had just gotten accepted into law school, I was going to be moving to D.C., my ultimate goal was to get a job and move to Manhattan,” she said. “I don’t want to say I pushed it to the back of my mind, but it didn’t seem super pressing.”

Fast forward a few years. Her law career and her New York life are settled, and she has a supportive boyfriend. She says she finally felt ready to take the BRCA test, and deal with the potential results. In December 2013, Stallings called to make an appointment and was told she first needed to meet with a genetic counselor. The first available appointment was the following May.

This five-month wait was unexpected and unwelcome.

“It just sort of adds a level of stress to something that is already stressful,” Stallings said.

Genetic testing can help diagnose a disease and estimate your future risks, based on DNA. It can even help patients and doctors select the best medicines. It came on the scene in the late 1960s and was employed mainly to screen prospective parents and newborns for deadly inherited diseases like Tay-Sachs.

In the early 1970s, scientists identified the extra copy of a chromosome that causes Down syndrome, and also realized that a fetus’ genes were present in amniotic fluid that could be extracted through amniocentesis. By the 1980s, prenatal screening was common for conditions like Down syndrome and cystic fibrosis, and the field of genetic counseling developed to help people understand their options.

Read more from Kaiser Health News.