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Remembering genetic counselor and pioneer Cecelia Bellcross

Cecelia Bellcross (center), founder of Emory’s Genetic Counseling Training Program and a leader in the field of communicating cancer genetics risk, died unexpectedly on June 8, 2023.

Cecelia Bellcross, PhD, founder of Emory’s Genetic Counseling Training Program and a leader in the field of communicating cancer genetics risk, died unexpectedly on June 8, 2023.

Bellcross dedicated her academic career to genetic counseling: advising patients and their families about their genetic risk for various medical conditions. She led the development and validation of a breast cancer genetics screening tool (B-RST) that was endorsed by the United States Preventative Task Force (USPTF).

“We are all devastated by the loss of an extraordinary individual,” says Peng Jin, PhD, chair of the Department of Human Genetics at Emory University School of Medicine. “Cecelia’s creative energy and dedication to her students have left an incredible legacy.”

Bellcross came to Emory in 2010 to develop the Genetic Counseling Training Program, the first of its kind in the state of Georgia. She was the first genetic counselor to achieve the rank of full professor at Emory.

Bellcross taught several courses and oversaw a program that has graduated more than 100 students. In 2020, she received the Provost’s Distinguished Teaching Award for Excellence in Graduate and Professional Education.

“Cecelia would be the first to insist that our program was a team effort, and her proudest accomplishments were all of the students’ successes,” says Lauren Lichten, MS, CGC, assistant professor of human genetics and co-director of the training program with Bellcross.

Working with the Georgia Center for Oncology Research and Education (Georgia CORE), Bellcross strongly advocated for reducing cancer disparities among minority groups and high-risk populations. She also served as co-chair of the Department of Human Genetics’ diversity, equity and inclusion committee, at a time when the department was broadening faculty recruitment and bringing clinical practices up to date.

Bellcross was born in 1960, grew up in the Seattle area, and attended the University of Colorado. After three years teaching high school biology in Washington state, she became interested in the relatively new field of genetics counseling after attending a conference. She received her master's degree in medical genetics through the University of Wisconsin-Madison Genetic Counseling Training Program in 1990, and her PhD in population health sciences from UW-Madison in 2007.

At Dean Healthcare in Wisconsin, she practiced as a clinical genetic counselor specializing in cancer genetics, and she developed and directed the Dean Cancer Risk Assessment Clinic.

In 2010, Bellcross completed a two-year American Society of Human Genetics public health genetics fellowship at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta. While at the CDC, she was involved in projects related to population-based screening and education for hereditary cancer syndromes, and promoting the use of family history to identify risk for common disease.

Outside of her career, Bellcross was an avid bicyclist and completed several rides of more than 100 miles. According to her family, she enjoyed knitting, dancing, hiking, playing cribbage and making delicious pesto from homegrown basil. She is survived by her husband Wayne and two children.

An Emory University memorial is being planned for Bellcross in September; details will be provided on the Genetics Counseling Training Program website. Family services will be held separately in Michigan and Seattle, Washington. Her family requests that instead of flowers, donations can be made in her memory to the Genetic Counseling Training Program.

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