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Today’s New York Times article outlining a proposed population-wide BRCA screening program in Israel notes Sharsheret’s work in genetics as part of a “campaign to raise awareness about the genetic susceptibility to breast and ovarian cancer among Ashkenazi Jews.” Why have we undertaken to raise awareness about BRCA mutations as part of our Genetics for Life program? This statistic speaks for itself: One in forty individuals of Ashkenazi Jewish ancestry carries a BRCA mutation, greatly predisposing Jewish families to breast cancer, ovarian cancer, and related cancers.
The idea of a population-wide screening program for every Ashkenazi Jew has been discussed recently in the American medical community, but more recently in the Israeli medical community as well. As the article notes, many advocate for this type of public health program because of its potential to save lives. Alternatively, many are opposed because of the psychosocial concerns such a screening program could provoke.
Opinions aside, as a genetic counselor who works with Jewish families at increased risk for hereditary breast cancer and ovarian cancer, I know firsthand that family communication and the psychosocial implications of genetic testing can be emotionally charged. The discussion between Tamar Modiano and her daughters referenced in the article about the timing and implications of genetic testing is a common one. This is why genetic counseling is vital. Genetic testing and interpretation is complex, and the information does not stand in a vacuum. It can affect individuals and families in a comprehensive way - medically, psychosocially, and financially.
As we approach the holidays of Chanukah and Thanksgiving, consider using this time with family to “Have the Talk” about medical history with your loved ones. I welcome anyone with questions about genetic counseling or testing, or their family history, to contact Sharsheret for free, individualized support as part of our Genetics for Life program. The program includes a confidential hotline, family conference calls, a peer support network to connect women one-on-one with others who are at increased risk for hereditary breast cancer and ovarian cancer, and health seminars presented nationwide to educate women and men about the importance of understanding family medical history as it relates to their own health. For more information and a copy of our booklet, “Your Jewish Genes: Hereditary Breast Cancer and Ovarian Cancer,” please call us toll-free at 866.474.2774 or live chat with us online at www.sharsheret.org.
In the year 175 B.C.E., it was forbidden to practice Judaism openly. The Jewish people went to great lengths to secretly perform rituals, often times hidden in caves. People did not speak openly about their Jewish identities, that is, until a small militia of Maccabees stood up and fought the Greek army and won. That’s the two sentence history of Chanukah.
Because of the example set by the Maccabees, we are long removed from the caves and openly perform the rituals. We light our menorahs in the front windows of our homes. There are public lightings all across the country. There is tremendous media coverage of the holiday of Chanukah. Because of the strength of courageous and caring people, the course of history has changed and we can stand up and let our voices be heard.
Now for another short history lesson….For generations, it was taboo to talk about cancer in the Jewish community. Family members did not openly share their medical histories with one another. People went to great lengths to hide their diagnoses. It took remarkable efforts to undergo surgery and treatment undetected by the larger community. People were worried about the repercussions of speaking openly about a cancer diagnosis or increased genetic risk of being diagnosed with cancer.
Because of Sharsheret Jewish women and their families who are affected by a cancer diagnosis now have a community that offers personalized support from other women further down the road who understand what they may be going through.
Because of Sharsheret the Jewish community has access to vital information about hereditary breast and ovarian cancers. We hear from many women who engage in open dialogue with their loved ones about their increased family risks.
Because of Sharsheret the media is talking about the increased risk of carrying the BRCA mutation in individuals of Ashkenazi Jewish descent. Sharsheret has often been featured in the media shining a spotlight on the unique issues of young Jewish women facing cancer.
Because of Sharsheret women and men, teens and adults, are raising their voices and engaging in conversations and participating in events that empower us as a community to take action and protect our future.
And once again…Because of the strength of courageous and caring people, the course of history has changed and we can stand up and let our voices be heard.
A family Chanukah party: Latkes have been eaten, candles are lit, and it’s time to gather for a game of dreidel. Everyone finds a position at the table, the chocolate coins are distributed, and the dreidel is placed in the center.
Everyone antes up. A minute has passed, two minutes. The game does not start while the dreidel remains idle on the table. If you stand the dreidel up - it will just tip over. You have to spin the dreidel to keep it standing. You have to spin the dreidel to make the game meaningful. And I love that everyone has their own technique on how to spin the dreidel.
The letters on the side of the dreidel indicate how you will fare during that turn. Will your spin of the dreidel result in needing to put more into the pot? Will you walk away with something? Half? The whole thing? Where will things stand on your next turn?
When you experience medical or emotional challenges, you feel like you are spinning. You may not know where you are going to land. Going through the motions of doctor appointments and treatment is critical for survival. But your own technique of how you spin the experience is helpful in finding meaning. The personal spin you put on it can move you beyond surviving to thriving.
Sometimes it’s hard to find the right spin. You may try to make the best of it, but it’s tiring to have to put a good spin on things during each step of this journey. You may be asked to ante up again emotionally and you worry that your resources will run dry. But there is always the next turn. Stay in the game. Continue trying to bring meaning to this experience. Who knows – on your next turn you may just walk away with a stack of chocolate coins that, when unwrapped, will reveal that you’ve learned something new about yourself.
Wishing you a happy Chanukah!
© 2015 Sharsheret: Your Jewish Community Facing Breast Cancer
Sharsheret is a 501(c)(3) charitable organization ID# 13-4198529
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