Cancer takes on a different meaning for everyone. But watching someone you love battle cancer is undoubtedly painful. My mother was diagnosed with the “Emperor of All Maladies” when I was 8 years old. I felt scared, uncertain, and powerless. When cancer infiltrated my family again years later, those painful emotions flooded back. However, this time around, Lauren Hogan, a cancer genetic counselor, provided the empowerment, validation, and support I needed. I did not know it at the time, but she would play a fundamental role in my life to come.
My appointment with Lauren was a transformative experience — it reframed the emotion cancer evoked in me. I hoped to find solace by understanding cancer academically. I recently completed a degree in biochemistry. Yet, my newfound knowledge could not stymie the devastation I felt watching my aunt battle stage 4 colon cancer. In his memoir chronicling his own cancer experience, the late writer and neurosurgeon Paul Kalanithi wrote, “there’s cancer, and then there’s CANCER.” My aunt’s disease quickly proceeded to the latter category. Then hearing I might be at a higher risk for multiple cancers if I also had the BRCA2 mutation just felt like too much. The fear was immediate, intense, and invasive.
Fortunately, Lauren is a phenomenal genetic counselor. She recognized how deeply the cancer in my family affected me. She validated how hard it was and sat with me as I processed the emotions our conversation unsurfaced. Then she brought me back to the present, assuring me I was doing what I could. It was exactly what I needed to hear. Our conversation turned to the familial BRCA2 mutation. Lauren’s calm tone was comforting as she relayed the implications of the decision to test and the potential results. She guided me to the realization that the unknown would be harder for me. I decided to pursue genetic testing. A few weeks later, a call from Lauren came. My results showed that I did not carry the familial BRCA2 mutation. Yet Lauren was careful to acknowledge that my negative results did not invalidate my family history, experience, or feelings. Hearing I could continue to contact her made me feel I was not alone in the challenges I faced. I felt an unparalleled release.
Having had such an emotive experience, I was inspired by Lauren to learn more about genetic counseling. She was instrumental in setting up an opportunity for me to volunteer in the cancer genetics and prevention department at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. I was working in a lab at the time and was more comfortable with cells than medical paperwork or clinical care. However, Lauren exuded passion for her profession during my training. With a bright smile on her face, she answered my questions, helped me process patient charts, and illuminated what it means to be a genetic counselor. Additionally, I had the opportunity to shadow her in multiple sessions. I was struck by how dynamic her counseling skills were. She built rapport with diverse patients, thoughtfully collaborated with interpreters, and made each patient feel heard. When a challenging case came across her desk, she was a champion for her patients.
Furthermore, I was consistently impressed with her relationships with colleagues. From physicians and nurses to administrators and volunteers, she treated everyone with kindness and respect. She helped ignite my passion for genetic counseling. Without her guidance, I am not sure I would be attending Stanford University’s genetic counseling program. I am sincerely grateful for her support throughout the application process. Even with her busy schedule, she made time to check in with me about my applications, edit personal statements, and give encouraging feedback. When match day finally came, she was one of the first people I contacted. As I begin my journey toward becoming a genetic counselor, my greatest hope is that one day, patients will leave our session feeling the relief I felt after seeing Lauren Hogan.