Cancer is sometimes the tie that binds a family together, however unwillingly.
Consider the 45-year-old woman who has just been diagnosed with breast cancer. Her mother and maternal aunt had breast cancer at similar ages, her maternal grandmother had ovarian cancer at 52, and a brother was 50 when he discovered he had prostate cancer.
Then there’s the 41-year-old man who has colon cancer, the same disease that afflicted his father at age 52 and sister at age 48. His paternal grandmother was diagnosed with uterine cancer at age 53.
These family trees of devastating disease are familiar territory for Barbara Hamlington. A genetic counselor with Rocky Mountain Cancer Centers in Denver, Hamlington makes quarterly visits to Steamboat Springs, where she sees patients at Yampa Valley Medical Center.
Hamlington offers two services: genetic counseling, which involves education, and genetic testing, which relies on science. She also provides a strong dose of compassion to counter the fear factor that goes hand-in-hand with cancer.
“The most common situation I work with involves women who have family histories of breast cancer,” Hamlington said. “Colon cancer among several generations is the second-most frequent scenario.”
Genetic testing scrutinizes blood samples to determine whether specific mutations can be found among the 23,000 genes shared by a family.
“For breast cancer, we are looking to see if BRCA 1 or BRCA 2 are present,” Hamlington said. “If we do see these gene mutations, then other family members are at risk for cancer, and we need to discuss medical management options.
“A strong history of colon cancer could indicate Lynch syndrome,” she said. “If this is verified by genetic testing, then specific colorectal screening recommendations can be made for family members.”
Hamlington said most cancers are sporadic with no known cause. But when cancer is known to be hereditary, genetic counseling can give families a better opportunity to live longer, healthier lives.
“Our goal would be to screen family members closely so we can identify specific cancers at an early stage and break the cycle of disease,” she said.
YVMC Cancer Services Director Jan Fritz, is excited about the new dimensions that Hamlington offers to residents of Northwest Colorado.
“It is really important to be able to give people who are dealing with cancer the knowledge to make decisions about their own care and their family’s care,” Fritz said. “Genetic testing and counseling enlarge the spectrum of cancer services available here.”
Hamlington discovered the relatively new specialty of genetic counseling after earning her undergraduate degree in neuroscience and working in genetics research for two years.
“My mother-in-law heard about it and told me it was the perfect mix between hard sciences and patient care, which would allow me to use my people skills,” Hamlington said. “She was right. I love what I do.”
In 2011, Hamlington received her Master of Science degree in genetic counseling from the University of Michigan, where she learned the “latest, greatest technologies taught by the people who developed them in a rapidly changing field of science.”
She also completed an internship at the National Institutes of Health in Maryland before joining the Rocky Mountain Cancer Centers team. Hamlington works closely with medical oncologists Allen Cohn and Robert Rifkin, who see patients at YVMC four days per month.
“I like coming up to Steamboat Springs and offering 21st century care to help families,” Hamlington said. “The information I provide can empower patients, leading to treatment, medical management and surgical decisions that are best for them.”
Genetic counseling and testing through YVMC Cancer Services are available by physician referral. For more information, call Fritz at 970-871-2464.
Christine McKelvie is public relations director of Yampa Valley Medical Center. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.