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Business & Professional Women in Austin: Gayle Patel, Genetic Counselor, Texas Oncology

Publication: The Jewish Outlook

What kind of profession are you in and how did you get into this line or work?

I am a certified genetic counselor. I have a master’s degree in genetic counseling and have worked in the Austin area for the past 12 years offering genetic counseling to a variety of patients and their families. Genetic counselors are healthcare professionals with specialized training in medical genetics and counseling. Genetic counselors work as members of a healthcare team, providing information and support to families who have members with genetic disorders and to families who may be at risk for a variety of inherited conditions.

I became interested in this field in college after my mom sought genetic counseling and testing for the hereditary breast cancer and ovarian genes (BRCA1 and BRCA2), and because of a personal and family history of breast and ovarian cancer. I realized how important it is to know your own family history and the significant impact genetic testing can have on medical management. I loved learning about genetics and wanted to help educate others on genetics.

Why are some cancers inherited?

About 5 to 10 percent of all cancer is inherited or caused by a change or mutation in a gene. Genes are like blueprints, they are pieces of DNA that instruct our cells how to make proteins that our body needs to function. We have two copies of each gene, one from each parent. Genes affect things such as height, hair color, and eye color but also can affect the chance of developing a disease such as cancer. 

Changes in genes, called mutations, affect the way a gene does its job. Mutations in certain genes can lead to an increased risk for cancer. It is possible to inherit a mutation that causes an increased risk for cancer from either parent.    

Can you explain the genetic risks associated with breast cancer?

Breast cancer is very common – one in eight women will develop breast cancer during their lifetime. The majority of women with breast cancer do not have an inherited form; however, about 5 to 10 percent of women have a mutation in a hereditary cancer gene that caused their breast cancer. Women and men who have a personal and/or family history of early onset breast cancer (age 45 or younger), ovarian cancer, male breast cancer, pancreatic cancer, metastatic prostate cancer, Ashkenazi Jewish ancestry or multiple family members with breast cancer should talk to their doctors about genetic testing for hereditary breast cancer. 

The most common causes of hereditary breast cancer are the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes. Individuals with BRCA mutations also have increased risk for ovarian cancer, male breast cancer, prostate cancer, pancreatic cancer, and melanoma. However, there are many other newly described cancer genes that we can also test for now. In addition, we have more sophisticated testing methods that allow us to look at multiple genes at once to significantly lower costs. It is important to know if you have a hereditary cancer mutation because we can then take preventative measures, find cancer early through increased surveillance, or reduce cancer risk through medications or some surgeries.   

Why are people with Ashkenazi Jewish ancestry at risk for breast cancer? 

During early research into BRCA1 and BRCA2, researchers identified three specific founder mutations in these two genes that are more common in Ashkenazi Jewish families.  Individuals of Ashkenazi Jewish ancestry have a significantly higher chance of carrying a BRCA mutation than other individuals. An Ashkenazi Jewish person has a one in 40 chance of carrying a BRCA mutation while individuals of other ancestries have about a one in 200 chance. Therefore, it is very important that Ashkenazi Jewish families with a family history of cancer seek genetic counseling and testing.  

What sets you apart from others in your field?

In the past I directly provided counseling and education to patients as a genetic counselor. I am currently director of the Genetic Risk Evaluation and Testing Program (GREAT) for Texas Oncology, educating not only patients and families about genetics, but also physicians, advanced practice providers, and nurses. I'm especially excited about the opportunity that I have to help expand our program to other Texas communities to ensure more patients and their family members receive genetic evaluation and testing. Since 2012, the GREAT program has evaluated more than 19,000 individuals across Texas! 

What inspires you in your career? 

It's impossible not to be inspired by the strength and resilience of the cancer patients whom we treat, as well as the many examples of compassionate support that we see from friends, loved ones, and medical teams. Healthcare is rightly focused largely on science, medicine, and technology – treating the cancer. But we also are involved in helping patients cope, understand their illness, and learn ways to help prevent it for themselves and their families. I am very much surrounded by inspiration at Texas Oncology and am proud that we are working to prevent cancer as well as treat it.

What career advice would you offer others considering this profession?

If you are interested in genetic counseling, I would recommend meeting with a genetic counselor to learn more about their job and whether it would be a good fit for you.  In addition to higher education in the science and psychology fields, real life experience in counseling, advocacy, leadership, tutoring, research, and working in the healthcare field can be valuable experiences prior to applying to a graduate school program specific to genetic counseling.  

If you could give your clients one piece of advice or information that would help them in relationship to your business, what would that be?

Know your family history! Knowing your family medical history allows you to take steps to reduce your risk. Talk to your family to gather your family history and then your doctor if you have any concerns.

Read the full story at The Jewish Outlook.

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