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School of Medicine Columbia

Previvor status leads genetic counseling graduate to her future

Madeleine Tjoelker first learned about genetic counseling in an introductory biology class as an undergrad at Trinity Christian College in Palos Heights, Illinois.

“I asked my parents if they had heard of genetic counseling before,” she says, “and that is when I learned that, because there is a family history of cancer, that some of my family members had actually talked with genetic counselors. I later learned that I am what is known as a ‘previvor.’”

A previvor is someone who has a predisposition to cancer greater than that of the general population but has not yet had the disease. Previvors can include people who carry a proven inherited mutation, are considered high risk because of a family history of cancer or who have another predisposing factor. 

Now armed with this knowledge, Tjoelker began a deep dive into learning more about the field.

“Because of the way genetic counseling shaped my life and my family’s life, I knew it was a field that I wanted to be part of,” she says. “There has a been great deal of breast cancer in my family, and knowing I have an increased risk, made me want to learn more about how that kind of information can help reduce the risk and hopefully prevent it all together.”

Tjoelker began to learn more about genetic counseling, conducting an honors research project on the biological, psychological, and ethical implications of direct-to-consumer genetic testing. She presented her work at the National Conference for Undergraduate Research.

Following her graduation in 2018 with a bachelor’s degree in biology with minors in chemistry and psychology, she joined a cancer genetics clinic as a genetic counseling assistant and continued gaining exposure to the broad field of genetic counseling through shadowing counselors in prenatal, pediatric and cardiac settings.

“That year-long experience gave me a behind-the-scenes look at genetic counseling, learning what it takes to run a clinic.” Tjoelker says. “It solidified my desire to go into the field.”

Tjoelker then began looking at graduate programs for genetic counseling and matched with the University of South Carolina School of Medicine.

“I connected with the faculty during my interview,” she says, “and they have helped me embrace my identity as a ‘previvor.’”

Following her graduation in May, Tjoelker will take her personal and professional experience to Augusta, Georgia, where she will launch a new hereditary cancer clinic at the Georgia Cancer Center, working with previvors and their family members to help determine the screenings needed and ways to reduce or prevent their risk of developing cancer.

“It is so important to recognize that genetic counseling and testing can provide answers,” she says. “Knowledge is power and having that information allows you to do everything in your power to reduce that risk.”

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