Cancer Gene: Oak Park Community Seeks Jewish Answers to a Jewish Problem
Oak Park, IL, Oct. 25 - The risk of carrying a BRCA gene mutation that causes breast and ovarian cancer is ten times greater among women of Ashkenazi Jewish descent than among the general population. With growing concern over what preventive measures Jewish women should take, the Rohr Jewish Learning Institute (JLI) in Oak Park is offering a course that will raise community awareness on how Jewish law views this modern day medical dilemma.
The course will explore the biblical requirement to safeguard one’s health, and whether it obligates Jews of Ashkenazi descent to test for BRCA-1 and BRCA-2 gene mutations. Even more importantly, it will discuss whether Jewish law recommends women to undergo radical mastectomies or oophorectomies in case they do test positive, in order to save their lives.
Entitled “An Ounce of Prevention: BRCA, Genetic Testing, and Preventive Measures,” the class is in honor of National Breast Cancer Awareness Month. It is the first class of a new six-week course, titled "Life in the Balance", offering the Jewish perspective on everyday medical dilemmas. The course is accredited for Continuing Medical and Legal Education, and can help medical and legal professionals develop a greater sensitivity to the concerns and decisions facing some of their Jewish patients or clients.
One in forty women of Ashkenazi Jewish descent carry a BRCA gene mutation compared to about one in four hundred in the general population. If a woman carries the mutation, there is a 50 to 80 percent risk she will develop breast cancer, starting as early as her twenties, and a 20 to 40 percent risk she will develop ovarian cancer as early as her thirties. Although the risk is much lower for ovarian cancer it is much deadlier, since blood tests and ultrasound exams rarely diagnose the cancer until it has already reached stage three or four, and is then difficult to treat.
Dr. Wendy Rubinstein, director of the National Institute of Health’s genetic testing registry, calculated that testing all women of Ashkenazi Jewish descent would save 2,800 lives a year and be extremely cost-effective despite the relatively high cost of testing.
“Statistics like these are leaving women in the Jewish community with some tough decisions to make,” said JLI instructor Rabbi Yitzchok Bergstein. “Some are reluctant to get tested, worried about the medical and financial repercussions, and the prospect of facing radical surgeries that could affect their self-image or ability to have children. Having to face decisions of such complexity has led many women to avoid addressing the issue altogether. But with mortality rates so high, this is hardly a problem the Jewish community can afford to ignore.”
In the JLI course students will be presented with different voices from the medical community as well as the perspective of Jewish law, so they can be prepared to make an informed decision in consultation with their physician and geneticist. They will have a chance to examine guiding principles found in the Talmud that can help determine how to respond to these very perplexing and life-altering medical quandaries.
“My childhood best friend lost his mother to breast cancer less than six months ago,” said JLI's Chicago coordinator Rabbi Meir Hecht. “This is an important issue in our community that is real and raw. Engaging the minds and hearts of our students with first rate education on issues that matter to them most is what makes us an exceptional adult educational institute."
Susan G. Komen Chicago is also helping to promote this course. “As a 2-time breast cancer survivor and an Ashkenazi Jewish woman who lost my Mother to breast cancer, I am profoundly aware of the importance of education with regard to early detection and education of the choices that we now have. At Susan G. Komen Chicago, we encourage anyone who needs information regarding breast health to contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org”, said Bonnie Gordon, SGK-Chicago Board Member and Development Committee Chair. “There is no right or wrong answer with regard to testing and prophylactic surgeries, only the knowledge from which to make the most informed decision that we can today.”
JLI, the adult education branch of Lubavitch Chabad, offers adult education in over 600 communities across the globe. More than 320,000 students have attended JLI classes since the organization was founded in 1998. An average of 500 students take every JLI course at the 15 Chicagoland locations. Like all JLI programs, Life in the Balance is designed to appeal to people at all levels of Jewish knowledge, including those without any prior experience or background in Jewish learning.
Call 708.872.7771 or visitwww.myJLI.com for registration and other course-related information.