Laura Dolan's Story:

Genetic Counseling

Battling Cancer Before it Strikes

How Genetic Counseling Saved One Mother's Life

Laura Dolan is so very grateful to be alive.

“When people ask my age, I am proud to tell them I am 50 and cancer free!” says Laura.

This mother of two, who survived an aggressive form of breast cancer, credits God and genetic testing with saving her life.

“Because of the knowledge I had from the genetic testing, I have been able to be proactive,
and that’s where my story begins,” she says.

In 2005, Laura’s mother and aunt, both cancer survivors, had genetic testing done at Virtua and discovered they each had a mutation of the BRCA gene. Because of the positive results and family history, Laura, her siblings and cousins went for testing.

Laura and a younger cousin were positive for the BRCA gene mutation.

Testing positive for a BRCA gene mutation significantly increases the likelihood that a person will have cancer – there is an 87% chance of developing breast cancer and a 44% percent chance of developing ovarian cancer. The risk for other types, such as uterine and colon cancers, is also much higher.

“I had a very hard time finding out I had the gene mutation,” says Laura. “I went through the mourning, the fear and the anxiety. I was glad I had this information but it took me a while to get to the point to go forward and say ‘I have to face this.’”

During the follow up genetic counseling session, a team of physicians, nurses and social workers from the Virtua Oncology Department helped Laura develop a plan to be proactive. She began a strict regimen of an alternating MRI and mammogram every six months. She had her remaining ovary removed to decrease her body’s estrogen production and planned a prophylactic procedure to remove both of her breasts.

But before she went through with the surgery, cancer struck.

“I’ll never forget it. Dr. Gillum called me that night and told me they noticed something suspicious in my right breast,” she says.

One month later, in June 2008, Laura had a double mastectomy. Laura was diagnosed with stage one triple negative breast cancer – a very aggressive and often difficult to treat form of the disease. The cancer had been detected in an MRI. A subsequent mammogram didn’t pick it up.

“When I was diagnosed, I was able to say to my kids, ‘this was caught early,’” she says. “Had we not had the genetic counseling, had we not heard everything that was difficult to hear in the beginning, I would have been going through my yearly mammograms but not the MRIs.”

Laura has been cancer free for five years. She credits her comprehensive team at the Virtua Oncology Department for getting her through the most difficult time in her life, both physically and emotionally.

“I appreciate that Virtua has all of the services I needed when I was really struggling. Not only did they want me to have these tests to figure out the genealogy of it all, but they cared about me as an individual and how this really affected me,” says Laura.

Support for Genetic Counseling

Genetic counseling is needed to help patients understand the impact of their test results. Counseling provides patients at a higher risk of cancer with resources to make informed decisions about how to proactively face cancer. At Virtua, that means meeting with a multi-disciplinary team of board certified genetic counselors, medical directors trained in genetics, social workers and an advanced practice nurse in genetics.

Even though insurance normally covers the initial genetic tests, it often doesn’t pay for the most critical piece – the genetic counseling.

“The most important thing is not the testing. It is the counseling and risk assessment,” says Bridget LeGrazie, manager, Cancer Genetics Program at Virtua. “Financial barriers could cost a life. If we can break that barrier down with the help of generous donations, we can really help more families.”

Complete genetic counseling sessions cost about $500 per patient. Providing support for this service does not just impact one patient – it can empower multiple family members to find out about their risks and what steps they can take to begin battling cancer before it strikes.

Is Genetic Testing Right for You?

While 90 percent of cancer cases happen due to lifestyle, environmental or aging factors, five to 10 percent of cancers are passed down from generation to generation. If you or your family members have been diagnosed with colon, breast, ovarian or uterine cancer, you could be at increased risk for developing these cancers.

Does cancer run in your family? Do you want to learn if you are at increased risk?  For information to help you decide if genetic testing is right for you, visit


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