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We know that 1 in 40 Ashkenazi Jews carry a BRCA gene mutation that increases the risk of developing breast cancer by approximately 80% and ovarian cancer by approximately 40%. However, approximately 25% of the world Jewish population is not Ashkenazi, and begs the question: What does this statistic mean for the Sephardi population?
Recent studies on the subject seem to indicate that it means more than the scientific community originally thought. In the past decade, stories of young Hispanic women developing the kind of aggressive breast cancer associated with a BRCA gene mutation commonly found in Ashkenazi women popped up around the Southwestern United States. It turned out that these women were actually descendants of Sephardi Jews (defined in this instance as Jews with Spanish and Portuguese ancestry, but the term is often used more broadly to include Jews of Middle Eastern decent as well), who were exiled to the United States and Mexico during the Spanish Inquisition. This story led genetic counselors around the country and in Israel to begin seeking answers to the question: Are Sephardi Jews also at high risk of developing BRCA gene mutations?
There isn’t a concrete answer to this question yet. There is a limited pool of Sephardi women sampled in scientific studies on BRCA gene mutations. However, a study on the genetics of different Jewish geographic groups conducted by Dr. Harry Ostrer, a professor of genetics at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, has demonstrated that all Jews are likely genetically related. Additionally, studies conducted in Israel have revealed two unique mutations in the BRCA genes that are found only in Sephardim, one of which was found in women who immigrated to Israel from Iraq, Yemen, Iran and Afghanistan, and the other was found in a study conducted by Dr. Michael Sagi on ‘pure’ Sephardi Jewish women from Spain and Portugal. Out of the 177 total women sampled in Dr. Sagi’s study, approximately 1 out of every 30 was found to have a mutation in the BRCA gene.
This emerging research suggests that Sephardi women may be at high risk of developing hereditary breast cancer and ovarian cancer, but more comprehensive research is needed. We will continue to follow this research and keep the Sharsheret community informed of any new developments. If you have questions regarding your personal family history or risk of hereditary cancer, click here to contact our genetic counselor Danielle Singer.
I remember sitting in the synagogue on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur as a child, watching the clock and counting how many pages of prayer were left in the service. I wanted to run out when the Rabbi began speaking. And the silent prayer – well, that just went on forever. “Oh my goodness, will this ever end?”
As an adult, I now appreciate the High Holiday services. I love the melodies that unite the congregation into one harmonious voice. The Rabbi’s message gives me much to contemplate. That silent prayer, though, is still a challenge. Occasionally, my private thoughts are comforting and invigorating but sometimes, the silence is too much to bear. Either way, it is in this stillness of my mind that I have learned the most about myself.
My true journey takes place in the quietude. All the events that happen in my life are just the junctures - first steps, graduations, jobs, weddings, children, or illness – are all merely points in time. It is in the quiet reflection that I ascribe the meaning.
When facing ovarian cancer or breast cancer, life may seem to swirl around you – doctors’ visits, scans, treatments, and follow-ups, while maintaining jobs and families. These things impact your family life, your financial well-being, and your emotional and physical health. I suspect that at one time or another you may have thought, “Oh my goodness, will this ever end?” As Sharsheret Peer Supporter Beverly Levy shared in her National Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month blog post, “I’ve decided cancer is like Whack-A-Mole, the arcade game where you whack a little critter over the head and another one pops up where you don’t expect it. But just like in the arcade, there are good times along the way. You don’t know how many moles you will have to clobber, how long it will take, and how you’ll do it – but you will. I can’t enjoy today if all I can think about is tomorrow and I can’t do anything about it anyway so head up, smile on face, and enjoy all the great things life has to offer.”
In this holiday season, I encourage you to take advantage of the stillness, whether in prayer, meditation, or just finding a quiet time to reflect on how this past year has unfolded, what meaning it has held for you, and what your hopes, dreams, and aspirations are as you move forward. All of us at Sharsheret hope that you will find strength, renewal, and meaning as you celebrate this upcoming New Year.
Cancer is huge (enormous, actually). It’s an adventure I wish I never had to take, but I’m living it in real time. Slowly, slowly, reality has set in. I have a chronic illness - ovarian cancer - that began in my fallopian tubes. I’ll be on and off chemo for the rest of my life. There. I said it. It’s my story. I own it.
Everyone has “stuff” and this is mine. I’m certainly not alone in this adventure. My family and friends have provided incredible support. Sharsheret, with its caring clinical staff, helpful website, and monthly group calls, reminds me that there are a lot of women out there just like me – taking this adventure, sharing stories, and providing comfort when some of us need it the most. I know that I can be connected to a peer supporter if I want one and I’ve volunteered to be one for other women. We’re all in this great big club that we’d rather not belong to, but we got “recruited” with the words, “You’ve got cancer.”
I’m doing all I can to find everything positive in this adventure. Laughing at what cancer offers up is actually therapeutic. Picking out hats, taking long naps, appreciating the kindness of friends and medical staff, figuring out how to make it look like I really do have eyebrows, and stuffing down hamburgers while justifying it because I’m anemic. All part of the journey.
I’ve decided cancer is like Whack-A-Mole, the arcade game where you whack a little critter over the head and another one pops up where you don’t expect it. Having a hysterectomy nearly two years ago was like putting the coin in the slot to start the game. The calliope music started and I was full of hope and optimism. I’m gonna beat this thing! Just like those little cynically grinning animals in the game, my cancer came out of nowhere. Whacked that first “critter” with a whole lot of chemo. Just like the game, another “mole” popped up – this time, a little one on my liver. Tried to whack it with chemo – oops – missed. Surgery for this guy – then we’ll whack it with more chemo. Whew – this game is exhausting.
But just like in the arcade, there are good times along the way. I’ve had stretches of great times – feeling wonderful and staying really active (more than ever and appreciating it more). What really matters is the present. How do I feel today? Great? Pretty good? Not lousy? Then I remind myself to enjoy the moment. You don’t know how many moles you will have to clobber, how long it will take, and how you’ll do it – but you will.
I can’t enjoy today if all I can think about is tomorrow and I can’t do anything about it anyway, so head up, smile on face, and enjoy all the great things life has to offer!
This year my resolution is to finally learn how to bake challah. I have tried, not so successfully, in the past. I am in awe of the process. I take simple ingredients -water, yeast, flour, and salt - and transform them into beautiful, delicious bread deserving of a holy blessing. But the transformation is not an easy one.
There seems to be so many choices and as a novice challah baker, I become overwhelmed. Do I choose the recipe that includes sugar or honey? Should I follow the recipe offered by my friends or family? I haven’t even begun to bake and already I am overwhelmed.
I begin by putting the yeast in the water. The condition of the water has to be just right, not too cold and not too hot. And then I wait. Is the yeast taking? Do I see it frothing or bubbling? Can I trust what I see? I take the chance and move on to the next step. The flour has to be added slowly until the dough is formed. I knead the dough for what feels like forever. I place it in a bowl, where it sits covered and in darkness, and I wait again. Will it rise? I have no choice but to be patient. If it doesn’t rise, I have to begin again. If it rises, I will move on to the next step. It does, and as I set about shaping the dough, I’m faced with more decisions. Should I make a three-braided challah or a six-braided challah, or perhaps a round challah at this time of year? After I shape the challah it must rise again, so back it goes under cover and into the darkness. More waiting.
It emerges from the darkness and I brush egg over my challah and place it in the oven. I am hopeful. There seems to be a light at the end of the tunnel. I inhale the delicious smell of challah as it fills my home with an enticing aroma for all who enter to enjoy, and bask in the glory of my accomplishment. I did it! I have taken these ingredients and turned them into a thing of nourishment and beauty and I have learned so much from the process.
When we are faced with illness, we can feel overwhelmed by the choices and what lies ahead. Whose guidance do we seek? Who do we trust? We are left with questions. Will these treatments work? I won’t know immediately. I can only do the best that I can do. I will have to wait and see. It is hard to be patient. Not knowing can feel frightening, but it’s important to remember that things can change in the darkness. Sometimes we can feel kneaded and stretched, while at other times we can experience the joy that fills our homes and our souls, like the smell of the challah in our midst.
The light at the end of the tunnel can be hopeful no matter where we find ourselves in this journey. We talk about the new normal - seeing life through a different lens after a cancer diagnosis - but in many ways, I now think about it as the new and improved normal. It is within our reach to bring meaning to our transformation.
This year, as you drizzle honey over your challah, take the time to reflect and find the sweetness in your transformation. I wish all of you a meaningful and sweet New Year.
By: Shera Dubitsky, Sharsheret Clinical Supervisor
2007 was a challenging year. My aunt was facing brain cancer, my mom had passed away a few years earlier from lung cancer, and my grandmother passed a year before that. I felt exhausted and vaguely unwell. I attributed my symptoms to caring for relatives, raising a family, running a small production company, and just getting older. I had a physical, blood work, a pap smear, and a mammogram in December and the results were normal so I stopped complaining. I was 56 years old.
In March of 2008 I received an email with the subject line: “Send to all the women you know”. Usually those get trashed immediately, but I opened this one because it was from my cousin. The title was: An Eye Opener on Ovarian Cancer. I read it and was stunned to find all of my symptoms listed. I called my doctor and requested the CA125 blood test and was told (just as the email predicted) that it was an unreliable test and I should make an appointment to talk about my concerns. Knowing that wedding season was approaching and I would soon be on my feet fourteen hours a day as a videographer, I felt an urgency to find out if something was wrong. I called The Cleveland Clinic and made an appointment with a gastroenterologist for that afternoon.
During the exam, the doctor said he “felt something” in my lower abdomen and scheduled a CT scan. This was on a Tuesday. On Thursday, the results were back and I was scheduled to see my gynecologist for an ultrasound to examine huge masses on my ovaries. By Friday, I knew it was probably cancer and surgery was necessary to confirm the suspicion.
Ten days later, I was diagnosed with stage III ovarian cancer and underwent a full hysterectomy. Little did I know that I would need several more surgeries and chemotherapy. I am blessed to have good friends and a wonderful family that enveloped me with love and support. Having always been a caregiver, I was not accustomed to being cared for. I was overwhelmed by the kindness people showed me. My cousins shopped for and purchased a wig with me and parents of children who attended day school with my children ten years before cooked meals on chemo days, sent weekly cards, and delivered pots of soup. One friend came with me to every chemo treatment and took notes so she could advocate medically and report to my out-of-town children. My sons became my “medical team”, researching, reviewing, and advising. Prayers were said for me all around the world. I was in awe of the collective goodness that nurtured me through those tough times.
Between the rounds of chemotherapy, I was tested and found to have the BRCA2 mutation that is common among Ashkenazi Jews. At the doctor's office, I picked up a booklet that explained the genetic mutation and its connection to breast cancer and ovarian cancer. The booklet was published by Sharsheret. I educated myself on BRCA2 through links on Sharsheret's website and made life-altering decisions based on what I learned.
When I became well enough, I contacted Sharsheret’s Link Program Coordinator and asked to join Sharsheret as a peer supporter for other women diagnosed with cancer. If I can help by sharing my experience, my time, or whatever is needed, I want to do that. Sharsheret is part of the collective goodness I experienced and I can give back through this organization. Recently I delivered Sharsheret brochures to two hospitals in hopes that others will become aware that support exists and is just a phone call away.
By: Fran Goldlust of Beachwood, Ohio, Sharsheret Peer Supporter
For those of us growing up in the 1950’s, cancer was not an often used word. It was referred to as “the big C” or by other euphemisms and was rarely discussed in public. That’s not to say the disease was uncommon, but rather that the topic just wasn’t discussed.
In 1960, my mother was diagnosed with cancer. She had surgery during the summer when I was away at camp and I was not told. Later, I found out that my mother had some type of “women’s cancer.” She had a full recovery and so the topic was never again discussed. My mother died of natural causes 41 years later. A year after my mother’s diagnosis, her sister was diagnosed with cancer. She died two years later. I was never told what type of cancer my aunt had and I never thought to ask. Cancer was a dreaded disease and not something one talked about.
In the mid 1990’s, my aunt’s son, who is a physician, called to tell me about a new test for ovarian cancer- the test for the BRCA gene mutation. I couldn’t understand why this was so important until he told me that both my mother and aunt had had ovarian cancer. At the time, the test was not being offered in Washington where my mother lived. The trip to Philadelphia, where the test was being administered, would have been too difficult for my 92 year-old mother so she was not tested.
Then I was faced with a dilemma – should I be tested? After deciding that I would not have prophylactic surgery if I found that I was BRCA positive, I decided not to be tested for the gene. I instead opted to have a yearly pelvic sonogram and a yearly CA125 blood test. I followed this regimen religiously.
About three years ago, I finally decided to be tested for the BRCA gene mutation. The results came back negative. I felt a tremendous sense of relief until I spoke to my nephew who is an oncologist. He told me that the results didn’t prove much. Had my mother tested positive and I tested negative, it would be cause for rejoicing. Since my mother had never been tested, it was still possible that some other gene was linked to her cancer.
These words proved to be prophetic. A few months later I had my annual pelvic sonogram and a growth was found on one of my ovaries. It was suggested that I see an oncologist. Surgery was scheduled. The pathology indicated that the growth was malignant and I would need chemotherapy. The good news was that it was Stage 1A - only one ovary was affected and the cancer had not spread.
The early detection of my cancer was due to knowing my family history. That’s why my husband and I, through the Gorlin Family Foundation, support Sharsheret’s ovarian cancer program, and especially the campus education program. We want to get the message out that it is imperative to know your family history. Knowing my family history has made all the difference for me. Find out yours.
By: Sue Gorlin of Silver Spring, Maryland, Sharsheret Peer Supporter
I had many of the symptoms. Unfortunately, I didn’t know it. I knew something was wrong but ovarian cancer never, ever crossed my mind. It didn’t cross my doctor’s mind either - even when she sent me to a urologist for an ultra-sound.
Six months later, I was in the emergency room after experiencing pains in my stomach on the right side. My husband and I were concerned that it was appendicitis. The ER doctor asked, “On what side did you have the pain?” He couldn’t understand why I said the right because my left ovary was surrounded by a huge mass. I was diagnosed with stage IIIc ovarian cancer. That was on a Tuesday in November of 2006. The next day I met with a gynecological oncologist and the following Monday I had a complete hysterectomy and debulking, which means the doctor tried to scrape every bit of cancer tissue out of my abdomen. He was pretty pleased with the surgery but much to my disappointment, he insisted I still had to have chemotherapy.
That was the beginning of my cancer journey. This November, I will celebrate five years – and my life.
Even though my doctor discouraged me from getting genetic testing because there was no breast cancer or ovarian cancer in any close relative, at the urging of others, I did. My genetic counselor didn’t think I’d get a positive result. Just weeks later, she called to say that I was BRCA2 positive. My three choices of action were more regular monitoring, taking medication to minimize the chance of breast cancer, or a prophylactic mastectomy. When I told my mother about the possibility of a prophylactic mastectomy, she burst out, “Well, you are not going to do THAT!” I read a few books, talked to a few people, and mulled over the decision for many months. A year later, I decided to have a prophylactic double mastectomy and reconstruction. While it was a difficult surgery, I have not for one second regretted it.
I’ve met a number of people with ovarian cancer in the last nearly five years and I can say, I’ve been very lucky. And everywhere I turn - my therapist, a neighbor, my doctor’s office - people ask if I’d be willing to speak with other newly diagnosed women. I never hesitate to share my experience and answer their questions. I am a journalist and my editor, knowing my background, asked me to write a story about Sharsheret’s Founder Rochelle Shoretz. I had not been familiar with Sharsheret before then. After writing my story, I contacted Sharsheret’s Link Program Coordinator and immediately offered to join Sharsheret’s Ovarian Cancer Program. I’m always ready to speak with women who are newly diagnosed, to offer rays of hope and suggested books to read. When I speak to other women, I always learn something from them as well.
But most important, I think, is for all of us to realize that we’re not alone on this cancer journey. No matter how close your family and friends are, the women who walk in our shoes understand our situation better than anyone else. And we can be a comfort to each other.
By: Jan Jaben-Eilon of Marietta, Georgia, Sharsheret Peer Supporter
My journey with ovarian cancer began when I arrived home from a fantastic winter break vacation and went for my annual gynecologic exam. At my exam, I mentioned to my doctor that I was experiencing heavy bleeding. He suggested we do an ultrasound and that’s when my life changed forever.
Without sharing all the details, I had many tests that led to two major surgeries. The good news was that my tumor was found before anything had spread throughout my body. I completed chemotherapy, which I was able to tolerate fairly well. A year later, during one of my regular CT scans, we found a small recurrence. I consulted two doctors and decided on a very heavy regimen consisting of two very strong drugs. With three young children at home, you can imagine the stress of wanting to feel good and be strong.
I changed my diet and I also changed my outlook on life. I try to enjoy each day with my family and try not to sweat all the small stuff. Throughout my experience, my goal for myself was to remain positive and take each day at a time. With an unbelievable support system from my family, friends, my community, and Sharsheret, I was able to not only get through this, but was able to continue living my life as normally as possible.
In partnership with the Sharsheret Supports program, I developed a local support group for the women in my community who were touched by cancer. Through our Sharsheret Supports group, women, including me, have connected with one another and found comfort, knowledge, and friendship. It means so much to me to be part of such an incredible network of women. I pray every day that I will heal and continue celebrating this life - the life that God has given me!
By: Vicki Hamersmith of Coral Gables, Florida, Sharsheret Peer Supporter and Sharsheret Supports Facilitator
By: Ruthie Arbit, Sema Heller Netivot Shalom Summer Intern
After 10 weeks of interning at Sharsheret, I can safely say that I went from a state of bewilderment from when I initially heard about Sharsheret in April to a state of admiration. Then, I was struck by the cause; I didn’t know that breast cancer and ovarian cancer were Jewish issues and I wondered what Sharsheret was doing to help Jewish women facing these illnesses. Now, I am in awe as I think about the callers, the peer supporters, and the volunteers who help us at Sharsheret do what we do.
The Sharsheret office is an incredible place. On any given day there is a string of devoted volunteers popping in and out, Team Sharsheret athletes coming in to meet with the staff, and the daily visit by the postman who picks up packages filled with hundreds of breast cancer and ovarian cancer brochures to be delivered to women and families, health care professionals, conferences, and Jewish organizations nationwide. Add all of this to the hard work that the dedicated staff at Sharsheret puts in – providing emotional support to women living with cancer and their families, answering countless questions from health care professionals about the unique needs of their Jewish patients, planning outreach events to spread the word about Sharsheret’s programs and services, coordinating medical symposia, and processing generous contributions from donors. It’s no surprise then that after only 10 years since its inception, Sharsheret has become an esteemed national organization with 11 programs, more than 1,200 peer supporters, and thousands of volunteers and supporters.
However, what impresses me most about Sharsheret are the women. The women who call Sharsheret for support as they ponder the potentially life-changing decision of whether or not to undergo genetic testing, the women who have just finished their final round of chemo and are already volunteering to be peer supporters, and those who are living with metastatic cancer and finding value in every day moments.
All of these women amaze me.
So, as I near the end of my internship, I want to say thank you to the women whose strength fuels the energy of Sharsheret. I am sure that this won’t be the last time I will be surprised by the amazing work of Sharsheret, its staff, and its women. Although my internship is ending, my connection to Sharsheret will remain strong. I look forward to joining Sharsheret’s volunteer force and contributing my time and skills to this wonderful organization.
© 2014 Sharsheret: Your Jewish Community Facing Breast Cancer
Sharsheret is a 501(c)(3) charitable organization ID# 13-4198529
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