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Meet an Instructor: Olivia Counihan

The Rivkin Center’s education program provides free ovarian and breast health education parties (workshops). Instructors educate women about their breast and ovarian health and cancer risks.

Say hello to Olivia Counihan, one of our instructors and former University of Washington campus ambassador.


Where are you from?
I’m from Mercer Island, WA.

Where do you live now/what does a typical day look like for you?
I live in Greenlake. My shifts are from 4pm-4:30am. Each shift, I work in a different part of the ER and see patients of all ages. I deal with everything expect trauma. On my days off, I like to work out, run errands, and meal prep. I also make an effort to travel a lot.

What do you do for fun?
I really enjoy running and typically run 4 miles around Greenlake. Also, my roommates and I love trying new restaurants. I also love to travel.

What is your favorite mantra?
Eat well, travel often.

What is your favorite drink?
I love all types of tea and diet coke.

What advice would you give to your younger self?
Don’t stress out about the little things. Looking back, I spent a lot of time stressing about little things that weren’t important.

What are you most proud of?
I am most proud of the fact that I’m a nurse because I love nursing and can’t imagine doing anything else. Also, nursing school was really hard to get into.

Where has been your favorite place to travel?
I loved my trip to Greece. My favorite thing that I’ve ever done was my 6 months abroad. I studied for three months in Spain, and immediately after that, I worked in England for three months.

What is one thing people would be surprised to know about you?
I am both a British and American citizen.

Where do you go to find inspiration?
I am most inspired by the people I surround myself with, like my roommates. Being around my friends and family inspires me to want to do more and improve.


What inspired you to get involved with Rivkin EDU?
My family history.

What is your favorite memory from a Rivkin EDU party?
The best parties are when the attendees get really involved, ask a lot of questions and show that they want to engage. I love when they challenge me and ask a lot of questions.

How can people help to support someone going through cancer?
It’s really important to talk about it since there’s a huge stigma around the topic of cancer. It’s important to not make people feel like they’re fragile and instead just treat them like they are normal people. Often times when someone has cancer, it overshadows the other aspects of their identity. A cancer patient is so much more than just their cancer, so it’s important to talk to them about things other than cancer while showing that you really care and want to be there for them.

What is the most important thing you want attendees to learn at a Rivkin EDU party?
It’s important for people to know that they can take control of their health. They have the tools to succeed and be proactive about their health.

How many Rivkin EDU parties have you hosted/attended?
More than 20.

How many total attendees have you hosted?
At least several hundred. There are too many for me to count!


Want to learn more about becoming an instructor or sharing your story as a survivor? Contact us.

Talk to your Family

Talking to your family and identifying cancer in your family tree can be a good indicator of your health risks. Download our Family Tree Worksheet here.  Be sure to include yourself, children, parents, siblings, aunts, uncles, and grandparents.

Get Educated

Know your body and be proactive about your health. Learn about your breast and ovarian health. Learn about the risk factors and signs & symptoms for breast and ovarian cancer.

Trusted Healthcare Provider

Having a relationship with a health care provider you know and trust is one of the most important decisions you’ll make about your health care. Click here to find a provider

Higher Risk in the Ashkenazi Jewish Population

In the general population, around 1 in 400 people carry a BRCA1 or BRCA2 mutation. People of Ashkenazi Jewish ancestry have a 1 in 40 chance of carrying a BRCA mutation, making them 10 times as likely to carry a BRCA mutation as someone in the general population. Whether you’re a man or a woman, if you have a BRCA mutation then there is a 50% chance of passing the mutation on to your children, whether they are boys or girls. It’s important to note that these mutations significantly increase risk, but are not a guarantee a person will get cancer.

Why is the Ashkenazi Jewish population at higher risk?

Over 90% of the BRCA mutations found in the Jewish community are one of three “founder mutations”. A founder mutation is a specific gene mutation in a population that was founded by a small group of ancestors that were geographically or culturally isolated. Because the population was isolated, the rate of founder mutations in descendants is much higher than it would be if the population were larger and co-mingling with more genetically diverse populations. A large expansion in the population caused the current high frequency of the mutations in the Ashkenazi Jewish population. If you are of Ashkenazi Jewish ancestry, the chance of carrying a BRCA gene mutation compared to the general population is increased tenfold. BRCA mutations can be passed down from either your mother’s or father’s side, and may be associated with any of the following cancers:
  • Breast cancer
  • Ovarian cancer, fallopian tube, peritoneal cancer
  • Male breast cancer
  • Prostate cancer
  • Pancreatic cancer
  • Colon Cancer

Ready to take action? Knowledge is power. Take this short quiz to be proactive about your health.

Genes 101

Our bodies are made of many tiny building blocks called cells. Our cells contain a copy of our genome – all of the DNA genetic code we inherited from our parents. Our genome is organized into 46 chromosomes, 23 inherited from mom and 23 from dad. Each chromosome has hundreds or thousands of genes. Each gene has the instructions to make a protein that may control the structure or function of cells, can determine many things including how tall we are or the color of our eyes. Genes also contain instructions for many things inside of us that we cannot see, such as how our bones are formed or how our heart works. Each gene is made up of molecules called nucleic acids (A, T, C, and G). The specific sequence of the nucleic acids holds the instructions that control all the components and their functions in cells.

If the DNA sequence is changed, like a spelling mistake, the instructions may not make sense. The technical term for this change is “mutation,” meaning there is a change to the usual genetic code that may change the instructions stored in the gene. A mutation in a gene that repairs DNA damage or controls cell growth can increase the risk of developing cancer.

Sporadic vs Hereditary Cancers:

Ovarian and breast cancer can be either sporadic or hereditary. Sporadic cancers make up the vast majority (85-90%) of ovarian and breast cancers and are not associated with family history of either cancer or inherited cancer-associated mutations. Sporadic cancers arise from genetic mutations acquired in some cells of the body by events part of normal metabolism and environmental factors. This type of cancer can happen to anyone. Most acquired gene mutations are not shared among relatives or passed on to children.

Hereditary (also known as inherited, or familial) cancers are those that occur due to genetic mutations that are inherited from mom or dad. Other blood relatives may also share these same gene mutations. Parents give one copy of each gene to their children. If a parent has a genetic mutation in a gene, each of their children have a 50% chance of inheriting that mutation. Therefore, even in families with hereditary cancer, not all family members inherit the mutation that is causing cancer, and their risk of cancer is similar to the average person in the general population. Individuals who are suspected to have a family history with high incidence of ovarian, breast, and other cancers may be offered genetic testing to try to find the specific genetic mutation that may put them at risk. Importantly, individuals who do not have a known genetic mutation but have high incidence of ovarian, breast, or other cancers in their families are still considered at higher risk for developing those cancers.

Hereditary cancers often occur at an earlier age than the sporadic form of the same cancer, so experts often recommend starting cancer screening at a younger age for individuals at high risk for hereditary cancer. Hereditary cancers can also be more aggressive than the sporadic form of the same cancer. Individuals who have inherited a gene mutation may be at a higher risk for more than one type of cancer.

BRCA 1 and BRCA 2: Most Common hereditary breast and ovarian cancer

The genes that are most commonly involved in hereditary breast and ovarian cancer (HBOC) are BRCA1 and BRCA2. These genes are named for their link to breast (BR) cancer (CA), but they are also linked to ovarian cancer risk as well as other cancers. Both women and men can inherit mutations in these HBOC genes. BRCA1 and BRCA2 are tumor suppressor genes that have a usual role in our body of providing instructions on repairing DNA damage and preventing cancer. When a family has an inherited mutation in BRCA1 or BRCA2, this leads to an increase in cancer risk. Not every man or woman who has inherited a mutation in the BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene will develop cancer, but people who have a mutation do have a significanlty increased chance of developing cancer, particularly cancer of the breasts or ovaries.

While breast and ovarian cancers are the most common cancers diagnosed in people with BRCA1 and BRCA2 mutations, the risk of some other cancers is also increased. Men with BRCA1 and BRCA2 mutations have a higher risk of early-onset prostate cancer than men without mutations in either gene. Other cancers seen at increased rates, particularly in individuals with BRCA2 mutations, include pancreatic cancer and melanoma. Researchers are continuing to find new genes that are involved in hereditary breast and/or ovarian cancer so it is important to follow up with a genetic counselor on a regular basis if hereditary breast and ovarian cancer is likely in your family.

Talk to your family about your health history and take the Assess Your Risk quiz here