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Ashkenazi Women Target of Faulty Gene?
"For Ashkenazi Jewish women, one in 40 will carry the mutation," compared to one in 500 for the general population, said Jablon, while speaking recently to a newly formed group called "Don't Ignore It, Don't Forget It" at Beth Sholom Congregation in Elkins Park.
Everyone -- male or female -- is born with BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes, but sometimes, they are mutated. Having the abnormal gene does not mean that you have cancer or will get cancer, but it does mean that breast cells are one step closer to becoming cancerous, she said.
"I don't think a lot of people know about it. I am trying to get word out -- not to make people worry or panic, but to show people that it is more prevalent," said Jablon in an interview after addressing the 80-person crowd.
Also speaking at the event was Melanie Corbman, a cancer genetic counselor at Fox Chase Cancer Center in Northeast Philadelphia. She said the risk of getting breast cancer is 12 percent for the average woman, while the risk for ovarian cancer is less than one percent. If a woman inherits a mutated BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene, however, she has an 86 percent chance of getting breast cancer and a 47 percent chance of developing ovarian cancer, she explained.
Corbman added that the gene is more prevalent in Jews because they tend to marry and reproduce among their own ethnic group. She also stressed that the Holocaust wound up narrowing the Jewish ethnic pool, leading to the increased risk of inheriting a mutated gene.
"So many people were lost, and that made it a smaller group of people. When they tended to marry each other, it concentrated the genes," she stated.
So should a Jewish woman of Ashkenazi heritage run to the doctor to undergo genetic testing to find out if she has the BRCA1 or BRCA2 mutation?
"For most Jewish women, it doesn't make sense to go out and get tested," said Jablon.
Testing should be done on women with "red flags" in their family history, according to Corbman. Those include a diagnosis of cancer before the age of 50; having cancer in both breasts; men in the family with breast cancer; someone with both breast and ovarian cancer; or multiple generations of family diagnosed with a form of the disease.
The talk marked the inaugural event for "Don't Ignore It, Don't Forget It," a group that plans to sponsor more lectures on other women's health issues, according to organizer Ellen Tilman. It also created a list of people who have already battled various illnesses, and who are willing to discuss their medical journeys with other congregants going through a similar process.
One of those is Mindy Cohen, 41, who was diagnosed with breast cancer a year ago, but said that after early detection, she's now cancer-free.
Although she has not counseled women officially for the group because it's so new, she has discussed medical issues with others in her personal life, and is excited to help.
"I'm very open with everything," said Cohen. "For me, sharing with the group is very important."
Tilman said that after the two cancer experts spoke at the synagogue, the talk changed the mind of at least one in the audience.
"She came up to me and said she would go get tested for the gene mutation because her mother died of breast cancer," relayed Tilman. "She was debating on doing testing. But after the program, she told me she's definitely going."