SIUH has Borough's Only Genetic Counselor Specializing in Cancer


Jessica DePetro: Staten Island's only genetic counselor specializing in cancer

Published: Thursday, July 21, 2011, 9:59 AM     Updated: Thursday, July 21, 2011, 10:05 AM
Marjorie Hack
The Healers
Jessica DePetro is the only genetic counselor on Staten Island, who specializes in cancer. She works at Staten Island University Hospital, assisting in the Comprehensive Breast Center and the Nalitt Cancer Institute. (Staten Island Advance/Marjorie Hack)

STATEN ISLAND, N.Y. - ALL SHORES - Sometimes, it's the tiniest things that cause us the biggest problems.

Over the last couple of decades, researchers have discovered that genes – the nearly invisible biomarkers that define almost everything from our hair color and texture to our general outlook on life and are passed down through our parents when they reproduce – can also play a role in determining our susceptibility to disease.

According to Jessica DePetro of Huguenot, a certified genetic counselor, 5 percent to 10 percent of all cancers are hereditary, for instance, meaning that they show up with regularity across generations.

"The genes are there. They're not going anywhere," admits Mrs. DePetro. But by giving patients information about their genetic makeup, counselors and physicians can often help them better decide on a healthcare strategy that works best for them.

"The goal is to work with families and show how their genetic makeup might contribute to disease," said Mrs. DePetro. "That's our role: To explain simple science to a patient and help them understand it."


Genetic counseling is one of the newer tools healthcare professionals have at their disposal. In fact, it wasn't until 1971 that the first genetic counselors earned their stripes and graduated from a program at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, N.Y. These days, Mrs. DePetro, 31, estimates that there are a few thousand like her working across the United States – some in clinical settings and research labs, others for private physicians and private laboratories.

On Staten Island, Mrs. DePetro is the only genetic counselor specializing in cancer, though there are two others who specialize in prenatal and pediatric-based counseling working at the Institute for Basic Research in Willowbrook, and another genetic counselor employed at Richmond University Medical Center, she said.

Mrs. DePetro works at Staten Island University Hospital in Ocean Breeze, assisting in the Comprehensive Breast Center and the Nalitt Cancer Institute. She arrived in March. Her specialty is oncology (or cancer) genetics.

She's one of a growing number. In 1994, 10 percent of all genetic counselors specialized in oncology; by 2010, that percentage had increased to 22.

There's a reason for the growth, she said.

"Every day, science is finding new genes that are linked to, or associated with, cancer," she said.


Putting together a profile for someone involves a couple of steps, one of the most important being developing a family history. If you're a young woman, for instance, and your grandmother, mother and aunt all developed breast cancer, that raises a big red flag for a physician and a genetic counselor.

If one of those people is still alive, she can have some simple blood tests, involving a single tube of blood. The person seeking counseling undergoes the same blood tests. If certain genetic markers are present in both samples, said Mrs. DePetro, chances are greater that the younger, healthy person could develop the disease.

"There are gray areas, but we have an obligation to the public to give the best care we can," said Mrs. DePetro.

So, part of genetic counseling involves walking a patient – diagnosed or not with a problem – through making proactive healthcare decisions with the information at hand.

"There are management options available and ways to reduce risk," noted Mrs. DePetro. These range from taking preventive medication, and in the case of breast cancer, considering prophylactic surgeries like mastectomies and/or removal of the ovaries after a person's child-bearing years.


But because healthcare professionals are dealing with people, nothing is ever cut-and-dried.

"It's not just about science," said Mrs. DePetro. "It's about the person, the psycho-social impacts on the person. You may get a person who says, 'I can't handle this information.' You may get someone who embraces the knowledge and comes up with a care plan that allows them to stay on top of a potential problem. Everybody's different. It's about understanding that person."

Mrs. DePetro seems particularly suited to blending the science and the sensitivity.

Born in Newburgh, N.Y., she was brought to Staten Island at the age of 2 to live with her grandmother. She attended PS 19 in West Brighton through the fifth-grade before heading back upstate near Westbury Commons where she completed middle school and high school.

She was offered a scholarship to play volleyball, her sport of choice in high school, at Wagner College, Grymes Hill, which she took. She graduated with a bachelor of science degree in microbiology/biology in May 2002 and earned her master's degree in microbiology in May 2005.

She earned a master of science degree in human genetics in May 2007 from Sarah Lawrence and gained her certification from the American Board of Genetic Counseling in August of 2009.

But Mrs. DePetro has more than degrees and licenses to her credit. When she was pregnant with her son, Jack, now 8 months old, she experienced first-hand the benefits of genetic counseling, she said.

Doctors suspected that her fetus might have a hole in its heart. Mrs. DePetro underwent testing and she and her husband, John, consulted with a genetic counselor. In the end, it was a false alarm.

But, having been through the process, she understands that the information gleaned from a family history and a blood test are, in and of themselves, not terribly useful, unless a trained professional can walk a patient through a way to use the information constructively.

"Look, this is what we have. This is what we can offer you," she said of her approach.

The field of genetic counseling is continually evolving, said Mrs. DePetro, because researchers are constantly making new discoveries. Genetic counselors are required to accrue a specific number of continuing education credits annually to maintain their certification. The National Society of Genetic Counselors also provides a network for counselors to tap and supplies up-to-date suggested reading lists.

But in the end, said Mrs. DePetro, she finds her greatest assistance among those with whom she works. "I feel very supported here. Every resource is here. It's an excellent environment."

She said there's no need for patients to feel like they're getting less than top-quality treatment on Staten Island. "They should feel reassured knowing they don't have to (head to Manhattan)," she said.

Mrs. DePetro works Monday to Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. at 256B Mason Ave., Ocean Breeze, though she tries to accommodate patients' time needs. The telephone number is 718-226-6230.

Red flags
Trained healthcare professionals look for several signs that may signify hereditary cancer susceptibility.

6 possible tip-offs

Several relatives on the same side of the family with related types of cancer, such as breast/ovarian/pancreatic cancer or colon/uterine/ovarian cancer.

A personal or family history of cancer at an early age (before 45 for breast cancer or before 50 for colon cancer).

More than one cancer diagnosis in the same individual.

Rare cancers, such as male breast cancer.

A family history of a known, altered cancer-predisposition gene.

Jewish ancestry, as there can be an increased risk for hereditary breast and ovarian cancer.

SOURCE: Jessica DePetro

Genetic counseling: Who might benefit

Genetic testing has benefits and limitations. There are five groups of people who could benefit from genetic counseling, though, according to certified genetic counselors.

Possible beneficiaries

Those with suspicious personal and/or family histories of cancer.

Members of a family with a known hereditary cancer syndrome.

Individuals with concerns about cancer risks for their children or extended family members.

Any person considering genetic testing.

Individuals that have had genetic testing and would like to further review their test results.

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