When Suzy Hacker was in her mid-30s, her doctor recommended that she have a hysterectomy because of anemia caused by heavy menstrual bleeding.
“Because I was so young, the doctor left my ovaries so that I wouldn’t be thrown into menopause,” said Suzy, who last year was diagnosed with stage 4 ovarian cancer at age 49.
It was only after her diagnosis that Suzy learned that ovarian cancer was rampant on her late father’s side of the family. “Had I known, I would never have kept my ovaries and might not be dealing with this now,” said Suzy, who subsequently has had six rounds of chemotherapy, surgery and genetic testing which found that she was positive for the BRCA gene.
To help others whose personal or family history may indicate that they are at higher risk for developing cancer, Ascension Via Christi St. Francis is launching a Cancer Outreach and Risk Assessment program this fall to provide screening and genetic counseling.
Pavan Reddy, MD, an oncologist with Cancer Center of Kansas, and Patty Tenofsky, MD, a breast care specialist at Ascension Medical Group, will serve as co-medical directors for the CORA program, which will be housed on the second floor of St. Francis.
Maggie Ward, a board-certified clinical nurse specialist who is certified in oncology and has special training in cancer risk assessment and genetic counseling, will serve as the program coordinator. As coordinator, Ward will be working with clients to evaluate their personal and family history and providing counseling as they determine next steps, which could include genetic testing and additional cancer screening and education.
“We then will work directly with the primary-care provider to establish a long-term plan of care for anyone whose testing shows that they have a genetic mutation,” said Dr. Reddy, who is also an associate clinical professor of medicine at the University of Kansas School of Medicine-Wichita.
According to the National Cancer Institute registry, currently the closest cancer risk assessment and genetic counseling program is in Topeka.
“There is such a tremendous need for this type of assessment and counseling, but to do it right takes a significant amount of time,” said Dr. Tenofsky. “Having a program dedicated solely to assessment, education and counseling ensures that patients get the time they need and deserve to process all of the information and make informed decisions.”
With the passage of the Affordable Care Act, insurance now must cover screening and prevention services, including counseling, for individuals who meet high-risk criteria. Additionally, genetic testing increasingly is being covered under health insurance plans.
“We have a team of insurance navigators who can help individuals determine whether they meet that criteria,” Ward said. Additionally, individuals who are uninsured or whose plans don’t cover genetic testing, may qualify for financial assistance.
Via Christi will begin scheduling July 15, but will not see its first client until the official launch of the program on Sept. 1.
“Although not required, we’re strongly encouraging anyone who is interested in the program to first talk with their primary-care physician about their risk and the possibility of referral,” said Ward.
Both Suzy's daughters now have undergone genetic testing, one of whom tested positive for the BRCA mutation.
“I’m not happy that she has it, but I’m thankful that she now knows what to look for,” said Suzy, noting that while she doesn’t have any sisters or nieces, the information could prove lifesaving for female family members born in future generations.
In the meantime, she has this advice to offer others: “Learn what you can about your family history and if you have cancer in your family, get tested.”
For additional information about CORA, call Ascension Via Christi Connection at 316-689-5700 or go to viachristi.org/cora.