There are patient testimonials. And then there is this testament about Gayun Chan-Smutko, associate director of the MGH Institute’s genetic counseling program and an associate professor: “I am alive today because of her. My family is thriving today because of her. And, because of her, our future is brighter than we could have ever imagined.”

Those words come from an essay written by Liza Talusan, who first met Chan-Smutko 15 years ago at the MGH Cancer Center. Talusan’s young daughter had just been diagnosed with retinoblastoma, a cancer that would result in the loss of her eye.

 “After I received my child’s diagnosis, I hated hospitals. I was angry at doctors, nurses, treatment centers, and I was even angry at myself,” wrote Talusan. “Though Gayun was delivering difficult news, she gave me one of the greatest gifts—the gift of knowing that it wasn’t my fault and that my body and my genetics held the ending to my story long before it was written. Gayun helped me to trust medicine, to trust health care, and to trust myself through my child’s treatment.” 

Talusan’s essay led to Chan-Smutko being named the 2019 Genetic Counselor of the Year by Invitae, a California genetic testing company that sponsors an annual event honoring genetic counselors. Chan-Smutko is quick to downplay the recognition, also known as the Code Talkers Award (a play on genetic code and counseling), noting the two other finalists were just as qualified. 

The women have remained in touch throughout the years. Chan-Smutko was there to counsel Talusan and her sister when they both tested positive for the BRCA1 “breast and ovarian cancer” gene. “It’s all about relationship building and meeting the needs of patients,” said Chan-Smutko. “Just like in Liza’s case, the results of genetic testing can affect not just one person but an entire family.” 

Championing Diversity 

Since arriving at the Institute in 2018 as one of the genetic counseling program’s first faculty, Chan-Smutko has served on the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Council and several sub-committees. She also was an early member of the planning committee for the Power, Privilege, and Positionality event, held for new students each semester to spur conversation and raise awareness on campus about issues surrounding implicit bias in health care.

Throughout her teaching career, Chan-Smutko has incorporated examinations of diversity into her classes. Past speakers have included Talusan, who for more than two decades has been a facilitator of conversations in schools about diversity, racism, bias, privilege, and power. Chan-Smutko hopes to have Talusan speak to her students in the coming months. 

Her efforts championing diversity have not gone unnoticed. At the 2019 National Society of Genetic Counselors’ annual conference, she received the inaugural Leader in Diversity & Inclusion Award, which “recognizes one outstanding individual who has demonstrated leadership and/or exemplary achievements in dedication to diversity and inclusion efforts within the genetic counseling profession.” 

“Gayun’s participation will positively impact future genetic counselors and other health professionals,” said Maureen Flynn, director of the Institute’s genetic counseling program and one of several Institute faculty who nominated Chan-Smutko for the NSGC award. “Potentially it will help to shift our field to further integrate diversity and become a more inclusive profession with which to serve our colleagues and patients.”