Clinical genetics and genetic counseling
The Clinical Genetics and Genetic Counseling Service at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center offers cancer risk assessment for people who are at high risk of developing cancer because of their personal history and/or their family medical history.
Our cancer geneticists and genetic counselors are here to help you understand the genetic testing process and whether it is an option for you. If so, we’ll explain how knowing the results can affect you medically and emotionally and how to adapt. We’ll also discuss the impact of sharing your results with your family.
Following the merger of long-time partners, Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center and Seattle Cancer Care Alliance, the organization was renamed to Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center. We are an independent, nonprofit organization that also serves as UW Medicine's cancer program.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
Genetic testing involves analyzing a sample of your DNA for specific genetic changes. The DNA sample can be taken from blood, saliva or sometimes from a skin biopsy. The decision to have genetic testing is a personal, informed choice.
If you have cancer, testing can provide your oncologist with new information that can lead to more precise treatment. If you don’t have cancer, the results can help us build your prevention plan. Testing results can benefit your blood relatives, too, by helping them better understand their own risk.
Genetic counseling is the process of providing education and emotional support to patients about inherited conditions and how they impact you and your family. The goal of genetic counseling is to provide clear and useful information about genetic risk factors in a way that helps you make the right decisions for you about cancer treatment, prevention or early detection.
To have a consultation with our genetic specialists, you can either be referred by your physician or you can contact us directly. Appointments are available to current Fred Hutch patients as well as people who are considered high-risk (for example, people who have a family medical history of cancer).
During your genetic counseling visit, we will give you information that will help you decide if genetic testing is right for you. We’ll discuss any concerns you may have about genetic testing as well as the possible results, benefits, risks and limitations of testing. We will also talk about cost, insurance coverage and other important issues related to your care.
Many people consider genetic testing if they have one or more family members who have had cancer. You may want to see our cancer geneticist or a genetic counselor to discuss testing, or your physician may refer you, if you have had any of the following:
- Young-onset breast cancer (diagnosed before age 50)
- Triple-negative breast cancer
- Ovarian cancer
- Young-onset uterine cancer (diagnosed before age 50)
- Young-onset colorectal cancer (diagnosed before age 50)
- Multiple colon polyps or young onset of polyps (before age 40)
- Pancreatic cancer
- Two or more separate cancers diagnosed at the same or different times
- Breast cancer and/or prostate cancer, and you are a man
If testing shows you have a gene mutation linked to inherited cancer risk, your blood relatives might be at higher risk, too. If it’s appropriate, and if they are interested, we can provide genetic counseling and testing for your family members. We can also guide them to resources for screening and early cancer prevention.
What to expect during your first visit
Before you have genetic testing, you will have a genetic counseling visit. During this visit, you will talk with a cancer geneticist or a licensed, board-certified genetic counselor. Our genetic counselors are specially trained in genetics, counseling and risk assessment, and they will explain the pros and cons of knowing your genetic testing results. Our genetic specialists will review your family medical history and will help you prepare to understand what your test results mean.
If you decide to have genetic testing after you meet with a cancer geneticist or a genetic counselor, we will take a sample of your DNA either through a blood draw, by swabbing the inside of your mouth for a saliva sample, or sometimes through a skin biopsy. Next, we send it to a genetic testing laboratory. After your results come in, we will meet again, over the phone, via telehealth or in person, to discuss what your results mean for your health and your family.
Testing the right gene
For genetic testing to be helpful, it’s important to test for the correct gene. There are many genes that may make you more likely to develop certain cancers, such as breast, ovarian, colon or uterine cancer. The most commonly tested genes are the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes. Disease-causing mutations (changes) in these genes have been linked to hereditary breast and ovarian cancer syndrome.
Other cancer syndromes that may also lead to early-onset cancer in a family include Lynch syndrome (HNPCC), familial adenomatous polyposis (FAP), Cowden syndrome (CS) and Li-Fraumeni syndrome (LFS).
At Fred Hutch, all of our genetic counselors are licensed and board-certified and specialize in cancer genetics. Because they focus on cancer genetics, their deep knowledge allows them to offer the best care to our patients.
Genetic testing is an exciting and rapidly growing area of medicine, and research continues to give us new insights. For decades, physicians and genetic researchers looked for gene mutations that might cause cancer one at a time, since it was all they knew about. Testing was also limited because it was slow and expensive. Because of these limitations, some patients who could have been helped by knowing their risk of cancer didn’t get tested.
But in 2013, advanced multigene technology was introduced, allowing physicians and researchers to examine dozens of cancer genes at the same time.
It’s important to know that although testing can provide many insights into your possible risk of cancer, the results can also be hard to interpret. Sometimes there is no clear course of action for you to take, because researchers still don’t have enough information to guide people in prevention strategies for several of the genes tested.
This is why it’s essential to work with a skilled genetics counselor who can select the right test for you, help interpret your results and explain all your options so you can make an informed choice.
Many genetic tests are available, including tests that anyone can buy at a local drugstore or online. Those tests are very different from the ones we use. Our tests have been developed in academic laboratories like those from Fred Hutch’s partner organization, the University of Washington Medical Center (UW Medicine). The UW lab has developed, and continues to improve, unique genetic tests for use in understanding inherited cancers. One example is a test for certain blood cancer genes, called the MarrowSeq™ Hereditary Bone Marrow Failure Panel. Our experts will help decide which genetic tests are right for you, interpret your test results and help you move forward.
Inherited cases of cancer
Cancer develops when abnormal cells divide and grow without being stopped. Hereditary cancer occurs when a person inherits an altered gene, or gene mutation, from a parent. In some cases, they can be the first person in the family to have the genetic change (de novo).
What happens after testing
If you decide to have genetic testing, your results will help us give you prevention and early detection management recommendations. Fred Hutch prevention specialists will recommend high-risk cancer prevention and surveillance (monitoring) options for you.
For example, if a woman tests positive for a disease-causing mutation in the BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene, we may recommend that she get regular cancer screenings to detect cancer early through Fred Hutch’s Breast and Ovarian Cancer Prevention Clinic. After that, she might move to our Women’s Wellness or High-Risk Surveillance Clinic. At these clinics, we might offer her options like preventive surgery or lifestyle changes to reduce her risk of cancer.
Our cancer geneticist or genetic counselor will help you understand what you may be facing once you receive your test results.
Learn about what each team member does.
Our cancer geneticist is one of the few medical doctors in the U.S. who has trained in preventive medicine, medical oncology and medical genetics. She has experience in using genetic tools to help understand how certain targeted therapies can help patients at high risk of cancer. She considers cancer and risk of cancers from many different angles, and she designs plans for screening, surveillance (monitoring), early detection and prevention for patients who have a higher genetic risk of cancer.
This specially trained health care provider helps you understand your risk of a genetic disorder. A genetic counselor can also determine if genetic testing could be helpful for you, based on your personal and family medical and health history. After you have had genetic testing, a genetic counselor can offer information and resources for prevention; connect you with prevention programs, such as those available at Fred Hutch; and help with testing your family members, based on your results. Fred Hutch Genetic Counseling Service providers are all licensed, board-certified genetic counselors.
Find care team profiles
Meet the caring, dedicated people who take care of you and your family at Fred Hutch.
Fred Hutch Genetic Counseling Service providers are all licensed, board-certified genetic counselors.
Lauren Brown provides counseling for a variety of hereditary cancer syndromes. She enjoys coming alongside patients to share meaningful and relevant genetic health information. She is certified by the American Board of Genetic Counseling and licensed by the Washington State Department of Health. In her free time, Lauren enjoys biking and overlanding (a fusion of camping and off-roading).
Lauren Facchini provides counseling for a variety of hereditary cancer syndromes. She has a special interest in genitourinary malignancies and focuses on helping patients understand how genetic test results can impact their personal and family’s risk for disease. She is certified by the American Board of Genetic Counseling and licensed by the Washington State Department of Health.
Cynthia Handford has been a genetic counselor since 2007 and has worked in both clinical and laboratory settings. She has a special interest in hereditary cancer and enjoys helping patients and their families use genetic information to be proactive with their health. Cynthia is certified by the American Board of Genetic Counseling as well as the Canadian Association of Genetic Counselors and licensed by the Washington State Department of Health.
Everett Lally provides counseling for a variety of hereditary cancer syndromes. He has a special interest in cancer genetics with a focus on gastrointestinal diseases and prostate cancer. He is certified by the American Board of Genetic Counseling and licensed by the Washington State Department of Health.
Mercy Laurino is the Director of Fred Hutch’s Genetics and Prevention programs. She is certified by the American Board of Genetic Counseling and licensed by the Washington State Department of Health. She is the 2016 recipient of the International Leader award from the National Society of Genetic Counselors and Past-President of the Professional Society of Genetic Counselors in Asia. She co-chairs the UW Genetic Counseling Graduate Program’s Diversity, Anti-Racism, and Equity (DARE) committee and currently serving as Board Secretary for the Asia Pacific Society of Human Genetics.
Emily Maxwell provides counseling for a variety of hereditary cancer syndromes. She has completed her Masters of Science in Genetic Counseling in Boston, and is excited to be part of the oncology community in Seattle. She has a special interest in hereditary cancer and enjoys helping patients and their families use genetic information to navigate cancer prevention, treatment and surveillance.
Lorraine Naylor provides counseling to patients referred for a variety of inherited conditions. She has a special interest in cancer genetics, with a focus on gastrointestinal malignancies. She is certified by the American Board of Genetic Counseling and licensed by the Washington State Department of Health.
Katie Neimeyer provides counseling for a variety of hereditary cancer syndromes. She completed her training in genetic counseling and narrative medicine in New York City and is excited to work alongside patients in the Seattle area. She has a special interest in cancer genetics and working with Indigenous communities.
Britta Sjoding is a certified genetic counselor and primarily provides cancer genetic counseling service to our Fred Hutch community sites. Counseling patients regarding hereditary cancer syndromes since 2009, she is certified by the American Board of Genetic Counseling and licensed by the Washington State Department of Health.