A 25-year-old man who is told he has cancer, or a mother who learns that her daughter inherited a gene mutation for breast cancer, can ask some pretty intense questions: Why did this happen to me? Where is my loving God?
According to Janet Williams, a genetics counselor and a member of Zion Evangelical Lutheran Church, an ELCA congregation in Salt Lake City, Utah, these questions are not often asked during a medical visit.
But she’s well aware that these are haunting questions asked in the middle of the night.
And although she doesn’t need to have all the answers, Janet looks to God for what she calls “inner reinforcement.”
“My faith provides me with strength to be with families as they adjust to a new normal,” she says. “I pray often when conveying information that I know will be particularly painful for an individual, and I rejoice when I can deliver good news to a family.”
While Janet’s life in the church began well before her vocation as a genetics counselor, together they create a meaningful balance as she lives Lutheran.
Since 1979, Janet has provided genetic counseling in a variety of clinical settings including pediatrics, prenatal, adult and cancer clinics. She has also served on the Ethics Committee of the National Society of Genetic Counselors and chaired the national Access and Service Delivery Committee. Now she chairs a task force on communication with insurance companies about reimbursement for genetic counseling services.
For this church, Janet has served as vice president of the La Crosse Area Synod. But it’s her role as co-chair of the ELCA Genetics Task Force that most draws on her passions for serving her church and providing genetic counseling.
“I am glad that the ELCA has chosen to carefully and thoughtfully consider the implications of the information that I use in talking with families every day,” says Janet of the ELCA’s proposed social statement, “Genetics, Faith and Responsibility.”
“I have never had doubts that DNA is God’s biologic medium,” she says. “But it is wonderful to have that reinforced at a very personal level for someone working in genetics.”
An everlasting student
As for her career, Janet says her job is great. “I can be an everlasting student with endless new developments in my field.”
She says she enjoys the intellectual challenge of understanding the medical background for genetic conditions, talking with doctors and other health care providers and then translating that information to families and individuals.
“I act as an advocate for individuals who are trying to negotiate the world of risk and statistics and make it all apply in a very personal way to themselves or their children or other family members,” says Janet.
“I am given the opportunity to shed light on and add perspective to what can seem like a genetic inevitability or a genetic roulette,” she says.
But it can be humbling for Janet as she tries to get up to speed with new and emerging information, particularly in the cancer counseling world.
“Feeling adequately prepared to discuss the issues related to inherited cancer was daunting and continues to be an ongoing learning process,” she admits.
But in light of the rewards and challenges, Janet learns every day from families who teach her how to help others cope with a new diagnosis.
“I can also help families and individuals identify resources in their faith or in their community to ease the transitions and provide support,” she says.
Over the years, Janet says, her faith has matured, as she learns to understand what is yet not understood, to be comfortable with the ambiguity in life and to realize that life will likely remain complex.
“But in the midst of all that, we are humbled to go before God with what we can do, feeling gratitude for how God is involved,” she says.