When it comes to women’s cancers and their genetic ties to the Jewish population, what you do know can end up saving your life — and give you a jump-start on discovering whether you have a predisposition to breast or ovarian cancer.
The University of Pennsylvania’s Basser Research Center for BRCA has partnered with Living Beyond Breast Cancer and the Jewish Women’s Foundation of Greater Philadelphia to bring together breast and ovarian cancer prevention advocates and create FORCE: Facing Our Risk of Cancer Empowered.
A series of events, which include future gatherings in New York City, Los Angeles and Minneapolis, launches in Philadelphia with Hereditary Breast and Ovarian Cancer Risk: What You Need to Know, on Oct. 6, at Congregation Rodeph Shalom in Center City.
Dr. Susan Domchek, executive director of the Basser Research Center for BRCA and an oncologist at Penn’s Abramson Cancer Center, and Rodeph Shalom’s Rabbi Jill L. Maderer will share duties as keynote speakers, while CBS3/CW Philly 57’s health reporter Stephanie Stahl will emcee the event.
Those attending the gathering at Rodeph Shalom will hear about breakthrough research with important details about the BRCA1 and 2 gene mutations, which predispose a disproportionate number of Jewish women to the cancers. Researchers, genetic counselors, mutation carriers, advocacy groups and BRCA mutation carriers — both women and men — will be on hand to share stories.
The overall initiative took root last month, when Basser sent packages to more than 1,500 Jewish congregations from coast to coast containing eye-catching informational posters to hang throughout their synagogues, along with fact sheets with details on the cancer-risk of BRCA1 and BRCA2 gene mutations.
Dena Herrin, president of Rodeph Shalom, notes that even with the ambitious scale and scope of the program, bringing the information literally home
to the greater community was something that came together naturally, organically and easily.
Herrin, who also serves on the Abramson Cancer Center Director's Leadership Council and whose own family was touched by breast cancer, says that “in our congregation, we knew this was a fit from the moment they contacted us. This program has several different layers to it, and it is not just Dr. Domchek speaking to an audience about BRCA mutations but also engaging the community in a conversation about it.”
The purpose of the event is two-fold, concurs Maderer. “Jewish tradition urges us to get involved. From a perspective of Jewish values, there is a wonderful mandate to heed the call of pikuach nefesh, to save a life.
“To be a part of that mitzvah in a communal way,” she continues, “is great because so many people have been touched by cancer in its many forms.”
The rabbi says she believes that the actress Angelina Jolie’s recent public experience with a prophylactic mastectomy captured people’s attention in ways other news stories about breast cancer and the BRCA gene mutations could not.
“There are a lot of important issues in the world, but now is the moment for this issue,” the rabbi says. “Who knew I would be quoting Angelina Jolie in my sermons? But the fact is she’s had something powerful to contribute to the discussion.”
Maderer said that guests at the Oct. 6 event — beginning at 10:30 a.m. and continuing until 12:30 p.m. — will have an opportunity to consult with the different experts about addressing their concerns and needs.
“While we are not offering medical therapy or advice, we are offering experts who will tell people what their next steps should be and how to access those resources,” she says.
Domchek, the oncologist. says that one objective of the Rodeph Shalom event is to provide information that will help dispel some of the misconceptions surrounding the presence and impact of the mutations. She stresses that people often forget that men also can carry these mutations and can pass them along to their children.
“We want to reinforce that you have to look at both sides of your family tree to really understand this,” she says. “There are a lot of different issues that are relevant, and we are sensitive to these in this outreach campaign.”
As an example, she refers to “Jewish individuals and families out there who don’t have access to their family history, as whole generations of families were wiped out in the Holocaust. Even when one or a few people survived, there is no real way to find out the family history.”
The goal, she says, is “to make people aware that they can improve their health and not just prevent the worst.” says Domchek. “What we’re setting out to do is first get awareness out with the poster campaign, and then provide more information” with events like these. l
To register — deadline is Sept. 30 — call 610-645-4567 or go to: www.lbbc.org/events .