Have The Talk

New York Times Article Addresses Key Genetics Questions For Jewish Women

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.

Taking Action As A Community

The past seven years since I was first diagnosed with breast cancer have been life changing for me and for my family. I am grateful for the wonderful medical and personal care I received. However, I can’t bear to think that my daughters and the mothers, daughters, and sisters of others, would have to go through what I have been through. I don’t want them to be treated. I want them to never have cancer in the first place.  For this reason, my husband Tom and I established the John Fetting Fund for Breast Cancer Prevention at Johns Hopkins to support medical research on preventing breast cancer. 

Recently, I visited the Sharsheret office with my daughter Carly. I am very impressed with the organization, its energy, and personal connection. We enjoyed learning about Have The TalkTM, a new campaign to encourage students to ask their parents about their family medical history.  Passover, which is just around the corner, is the perfect time when families will be together and can talk about important family issues.  I urge you to make assembling a family medical history a priority for your family.

My hope is that when we get more Jewish people focused on being stakeholders, we will be able to accomplish so much in many areas.  We need Jewish people to know their family medical histories, to deal with the facts when they get tested, and we need them to stop thinking of breast cancer as being something people have or don't have.  Our community has breast cancer, not just the individuals in it, and not just the women.  When the mother is sick, the whole family is not well.  We have to remain vigilant with monitoring and we need to be vigilant in advocating for intelligent decision-making on health issues.  This attention cannot stop after the first round of surgery and medical treatment.  We need to stay focused for our own benefit and we need to protect future generations.

Our Jewish community is uniquely poised to use our substantial resources to make things happen when we know we have a big problem. We do it for Israel, we do it with the other innovative programs of our Jewish charities.  We need to pool our individual, foundation, and corporate resources to address this health crisis of breast cancer that is imperiling Jewish families and our entire community. If we make it a priority, we will win this battle. The time is right for us to give the medical community the resources it needs to focus on preventing breast cancer.

To learn more about the important research of the John Fetting Fund for Breast Cancer Prevention at Johns Hopkins, go to www.fettingfund.org.  If you would like to see a video of my personal story and my reasons for devoting my energies to preventing breast cancer, go to http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WW0RfkYWPZ8&feature=youtu.be  or write to me at leslie@thinkbrighter.org.