Interview: Genetic Counselor Christina Ikard

Christina IkardThe lovely and brilliant Christina Ikard is a genetic counselor in Boise, Idaho specializing in hereditary cancer and a spectacular friend. She has an exceptional sense of humor in spite of the emotionally challenging situations she is confronted with daily, and an admirable strength of character. Her only downfall is that she won’t let me flay her skin and crawl inside her body so I can pretend to be her, but other than that slight personality quirk, she’s a dream. She very kindly answered my uncomfortable questions over e-mail while balancing a full time job. The baby pictured above is not hers, it’s just a photo I creepily stole from her Facebook profile without her permission. Without further ado, Christina Ikard ladies and gentlemen.

SP: Many people don’t know what a genetic counselor does. How would you describe your work? 

CI: Genetic counselors are healthcare professionals with unique specialized graduate degrees and experience in the areas of both medical genetics and counseling. Genetic counselors work as members of a healthcare team, providing risk assessment, education and support to individuals and families at risk for, or diagnosed with, a variety of inherited conditions. Genetic counselors also interpret genetic testing, provide supportive counseling, and serve as patient advocates.

So that is the technical definition, but I think of my role as someone who interprets family histories of cancer and determines whether or not genetic testing for a hereditary form of cancer is indicated. If it is, I help the patient and the family through the process, making sure to interpret the results for the family so that it is useable information.

Genetic counselors work in almost all the areas of medicine, but I specialize in hereditary cancer.

SP: What is the weirdest thing you’ve ever encountered in your field? 

CI: These hereditary cancer syndromes that I work with are pretty rare, with the most common syndrome occurring in about 1 in 500 people, is higher in some specific populations. I had a family who had two different hereditary cancer syndromes, which was pretty unusual and definitely kept me from never saying never.

SP: What’s your favorite part about your job? 

I love being able to talk to people all day long and being able to provide comfort and education on a daily basis. I always wanted to be in the medical field, but I didn’t want to have to deal with blood or other bodily functions. This way I am able to be in the constantly changing and exciting field of genetics and I am just able to converse with people all day long.

SP: What does a typical day look like for you? Starting with breakfast and ending with sleep. 

CI: I usually get up 30 minutes later than I am always intending to and then I quickly put bread in the toaster and start the coffee maker. Then I rush through getting ready, get myself out the door, and drive to work while eating my breakfast. One of the great things about Boise is no traffic, so I have a less than 5 minute commute to work. I usually start the day at 8 or 8:30 with emails and phone calls and then see the patients that are on my schedule. At the end of the day I catch up on my documentation and phone calls. I usually leave work around 4 or 4:30 and act like I am going to go to the gym, but that only happens about 50% of the time. After the sometimes gym time, I make dinner, eat, watch way too much trashy TV and then go to bed. I try and read for about 5 or 10 minutes before I go to bed or I play candy crush (yes I am still playing that game).

SP: Why did you want to become a genetic counselor? 

I wanted to be in the field of genetics ever since I was in middle school and we started to learn about genetics in school. I was fascinated with families and how we are all connected and why some families have some traits and other families have others.

I then thought I wanted to go to Medical school, but I shadowed a few doctors and realized that they only get maybe 15 minutes with each patient, they have to deal with some crazy bodily functions, and they have to go to school for at least 4 years.

I first heard of genetic counseling when I was in high school and was shadowing a doctor that specializes in genetics, called a geneticist. I loved how they were able to form real relationships with their patients, while still learning about these very interesting genetic disorders and being in the field of genetics. Then, I found out that it was only a master’s degree and I was sold.

SP: Where did you grow up and what was it like? What does your family think about your career choice? 

I grew up in Littleton, Colorado and I was the oldest of 4 children. I think I had a really good childhood overall as my parents always provided us with the strength to go out into the world and accomplish what we wanted. As a testament to that statement, I went to New York City for college, while my siblings went to Seattle, Boston, and Los Angeles. It seems that all of us had a stable foundation to go out and tackle the world, even if it meant leaving home.

My family is pretty close knit, even though we live apart from each other. Obviously genetics and families go hand and hand so I was always curious with different family dynamics and why each family is so unique. I work with families on a daily basis and it never seems that any family is the same.

I think my family is happy with my career choice. It is hard to know what a genetic counselor is until you go through a full session with one so I am not entirely sure if they know exactly what I do, but I know that they are happy to tell others what my title is to other people. I guess I have never really asked them directly to really know how they feel.

SP: What do you think is the future of genetic counseling? 

Pretty soon we will be able to sequence the entire genetic code for each person so I think that our role will be to help other health care providers and patients interpret what each of their individual codes mean for disease and health risk. Eventually we will all be practicing personalized medicine based on a person’s genetic makeup and our job will be to help with this transition.

SP: What is the most controversial issue in your field right now? 

As I practice hereditary cancer, I do not have to deal with it, but genetic counselors in other specialties have to combat the abortion question. Some people view our jobs as wanting to prevent the birth of any child with a genetic disease. I believe it is quite the opposite in that we empower people to have the knowledge regarding the risk for genetic disease in their families and allow them to make their own choices about their families. We provide information about all options and empower patients to make the right choice for them, which is a very powerful thing.

SP: Are there any misconceptions about genetic counseling that you’d like to clear up here? 

There is also the misconception that we have the ability to reach in and “fix bad genes” and/or play god. We do not have the ability to do that and instead we educate people about their genetics and how it may influence their disease risk. We cannot fix these broken genes, but we can help people to better manage their health based on their genetics.

SP: Please describe your soul in whatever terms you deem appropriate. 

I think I am a rather complex person in that I love talking to people all day long, but feel that I am an introvert deep down. There are only a handful of people that I let in fully, but on the outside I am very welcoming and seem like an open book. I don’t know whether that answers this question, but it was the first thing that came to mind so I went with it.

SP: Is there anything sexual (about you or the world at large) that you would like to share? 

If you know me you know that I seem to be the go to person for reproductive health questions. Maybe it was from teaching sex education to public high school students or my counseling vibe, but for some reason that is one of the many hats that I wear. Once again, I don’t know if that answers your question, but that is definitely a true fact about me.

SP: What are you currently reading, watching, doing for fun? 

Currently I am reading “Me Talk Pretty Someday” by David Sedaris, which I absolutely love. I am in a book club for the first time in my life which has been awesome as I never really read for fun when I was in school.

I LOVE trashy television including anything that is reality. I don’t know why I am drawn to this type of TV, but I think I like that I am able to turn off my brain. Also I like watching “real” families on TV, which once again maybe speaks to my fascination with families. I am also watching Orange is the New Black which I love and just finished House of Cards.

I am currently on a soccer team for the first time since high school. Since it is currently winter I have been skiing quite a bit. I also love to hike and have been attempting to get back into running.

SP: Any advice for aspiring genetic counselors? 

My advice would be to try and get as much experience in a counseling or education role as you can. I worked at Planned Parenthood and taught health to high school children, both of which pushed me out of my comfort zone and forced me to talk about uncomfortable topics to a variety of people.

I would also encourage you to reach out to genetic counselors in your area and interview them about their job. I don’t know if you really get the sense of what it is, until you are in the midst of it, but it always helps to see what other genetic counselors are currently doing.

We are definitely in need of genetic counselors everywhere so I encourage everyone with a passion for genetics and families to look into this field.


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