When Wendy Unger found out she tested positive for the BRCA-1 gene mutation which dramatically increases the risk of invasive breast and ovarian cancer, she wasn’t planning on taking any preventive measures.
Her initial thought: Why would anyone want to have a mastectomy or oophorectomy if they didn’t have cancer?
But that thought quickly changed when Unger’s oncologist told her that as a carrier of the BRCA-1 gene, her risk of developing breast or ovarian cancer was 85 to 90 percent compared to 2 to 3 percent for a woman without the gene mutation.
“When my oncologist asked me if that changed my mind, I asked, ‘how quickly can I have the surgery?’ ” she said.
Unger, a Jewish woman of Ashkenazic (East European) decent, ended up having a double mastectomy and oophorectomy as a preventive measure. Now, she is 64, and remains cancer-free.
According to the Center for Restorative Breast Surgery, Ashkenazic women are 10 times more likely to have the mutations in BRCA-1 and BRCA-2 genes than the general population.
One in 40 women of Ashkenazic descent carry a BRCA gene mutation compared to about 1 in 400 in the general population. Women who carry the mutation have a 50 to 80 percent risk of developing breast cancer, as early as her 20s, and a 20 to 40 percent risk of developing ovarian cancer as early as her 30s.
Unger, who volunteers as an Outreach Coordinator for Facing Our Risk of Cancer Empowered (FORCE), says the “fly in the ointment” is that for women who are a carrier of the BRCA-1 or BRCA-2 gene, the cancer is much more aggressive and difficult to treat.
“I can only speak about what I did for myself, the best thing for me, which was to look at the high risk of aggressive cancer if I got the cancer and didn’t have the surgery,” Unger said. “I was a healthy woman and I wanted to stay a healthy woman.”
Due to the growing concern in the community over what preventive measures Jewish women should take – yearly exams, medication or surgery – the Rohr Jewish Learning Institute (JLI) in Coral Gables is offering a class that will discuss what Jewish law recommends and explore the biblical requirement to protect individual health.
The class, “An Ounce of Prevention: BRCA, Genetic Testing and Preventive Measures,” will be held on Wednesday at 12 p.m. at the law firm of Becker and Poliakoff in Coral Gables and at 7:45 p.m. at the Chabad of Downtown Coral Gables.
Both classes are being offered for free in order to promote community awareness during breast cancer awareness month, but registration is still required. Anyone interested can visit www.chabadgables.com for more information.
Rabbi Avrohom Stolik, the regional director for JLI, will be leading the workshop. He said although Jewish law was formed when DNA testing didn’t exist, there are some principles that can guide people as to whether or not genetic testing should be done.
“The problem that woman face is whether to have themselves tested to see if they have this gene or not, and if they find that they actually are a carrier of this gene, what should they do,” he said.
Attorneys and doctors will be leading the medical and legal dimension of the workshop, and both the secular and Jewish perspectives will be addressed. Doctors, dentists and attorneys will be able to receive continuing education credits for attending the course and no Jewish background is required to register.
“You don’t need to have any knowledge of Jewish or secular law,” Rabbi Stolik said. “We encourage everyone to participate because it is a very important topic that people should learn about and be aware of.”