CJG Blog

Center for Jewish Genetics blog

Everything You Need To Know About Jewish Genetics: Video Now Available

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In 2018, the Sarnoff Center ran four webinars for clergy, entitled Everything You Need to Know About Jewish Genetics (But Are Afraid to Ask). The webinar offers clergy tools to serve congregants as they navigate Jewish genetic health topics and is co-presented by genetic counselor Rebecca Wang, LCGC, and Rabbi Aaron Melman. Watch the video of the July 2018 webinar:

Sarnoff Center Clergy Webinar 7.25.18 from JUFAV on Vimeo.

Have questions or want more information? Contact the Sarnoff Center at (312) 357-4718 or JewishGenetics@juf.org. Since the time of this recording, genetic counselor Melissa Ramos joined the Sarnoff Center team. You can reach her at MelissaRamos@juf.org

The Resource about BRCA Genetic Testing I Wish I Had

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Pink and Teal Ribbon

By Anna Kheyfets

Part 1 - What is a BRCA Mutation and why might someone test for it? 

If you or someone you know has breast or ovarian cancer, a conversation about genetic testing might come up. When I found out my mom had cancer, genetic testing, while not on top of mind, did indeed arise as we navigated her treatment. To read that blogpost on WomanLab, I would start there. It gives you a little insight as to why I was even tested at 19 years old. 

As I was deciding whether or not to be tested, I explored everything the internet had to offer on the resources about BRCA testing. Although I spent hours at a time Googling, I realized what I was looking for was not out there. All the resources I found were either too cold, scientific, and removed, or too fluffy and highly opinionated. I wanted something that I could relate to, learn from, and maybe even help me make a decision. This is, in large part, why genetic counselors are such an asset. They bring you the most evidence-based information all through a warm, human touch. While I made my decision without such a resource three years ago, I wanted to fill a gap to help others in making their decision about genetic testing.

Ok, but first let’s start with the basics: What are BRCA genes?

Genes are passed onto us by our biological parents and we pass them onto our kids, if we have them. However, genes are not stagnant—they change, mutate, and recombine to make each of us entirely unique. That is why your genetic code is different from your siblings’, even if you come from the same biological parents. There are a few genes that are common to predispositions for diseases. One example is the BReast CAncer susceptibility (BRCA) genes for Hereditary Breast and Ovarian Cancer Syndrome (HBOC).

The unmutated versions of the BRCA genes code for tumor suppressor proteins. That’s just a fancy way of saying that when all is operating like it should, these genes make sure your cells don’t grow when they shouldn’t. Rapidly dividing cells form tumors and can possibly result in a cancerous tumor.

The BRCA1 and 2 gene mutations can be inherited from either parent. About 1 in 400 women in the United States has either the BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene mutation. Eastern European, or Ashkenazi, Jewish people such as myself have about a 10-fold higher risk of having these genes. You can find more on what’s Jewish about BRCA here.

By 70 years old, women with the BRCA1 gene mutation have about a 55-65% chance of developing breast cancer and women with the BRCA2 gene mutation have about a 45% chance, while the general population has about an 8% chance. It is important to remember that many other factors like your environment, behavior, diet and, yes, even other genes affect your chance of developing cancer. If you have these gene mutations, it does not mean you will definitely develop cancer, but being tested can allow some preventive measures to be taken.

So you might be wondering, why would a woman choose not to be tested for genes that might cause cancer? If your mom were diagnosed with cancer, wouldn’t you want to know? What’s the downside? It is often not that easy. If you read my other blog on WomanLab.org, you know that while I was quick to be tested with the guidance of my physician, my sister has made the opposite choice. She has decided, at least for now, genetic testing is not for her.  Speaking to her, I learned that she chose to forego testing until she was older to avoid what could come with a possible positive result. If she was tested at 16 years old and learned she had the gene mutation, she could live in fear that she is more likely to get cancer and pass it onto her future children at an extremely young age. Instead, she is choosing to take the time she needs to decide if and when genetic testing is right for her. At a young age one might not be ready to make such a call. In fact, genetics professionals generally agree that testing is most appropriate for individuals in their early- to mid-twenties and older, but of course every person and situation is unique. That’s why it is important to talk to a physician or a genetic counselor before making any swift decisions.

Anna Kheyfets is a senior at the University of Chicago. She will be graduating March 2019 with a degree in Anthropology and Biology. She is an avid reader, writer, New Yorker, and proponent of women’s health and rights. She has been an intern at WomanLab ( www.womanlab.org ) in the Lindau Lab at the University of Chicago since January 2018, where she has contributed to blog content, analytics and the other research efforts. What’s next? After graduation she will be continuing her research in Women’s Health back in NYC during her gap year before she begins medical school and is looking forward to some lengthy subway rides.

Lynch Syndrome: Three Facts about the Leading Cause of Hereditary Colorectal Cancer

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By Carol Guzman

Lynch syndrome (LS) is a heritable disorder that causes an increased risk of colorectal and many other types of cancers. People inherit Lynch syndrome in an autosomal dominant manner, which means that if one parent carries a gene mutation for LS, there is a 50 percent chance LS will pass to each child. When they’re working as they should, the genes associated with LS protect you from getting certain cancers by repairing mistakes made in DNA, but mutations in these genes prevent them from working properly, which can lead to uncontrolled cell growth.

One in 440 Americans are carriers for Lynch syndrome.1 Ashkenazi Jews have specific LS founder mutations and have among the highest rates of colorectal cancer of any ethnic group.2,3 In honor of Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month and National Lynch Syndrome Awareness Day, here are three facts you might not have known about Lynch Syndrome:

  • Genes associated with LS can increase risk of breast and ovarian cancer.4,5 In addition to a higher risk of colorectal cancers, women with specific variants of LS are twice as likely to develop breast cancer than women without Lynch syndrome (15%). Women can have up to a 24 percent increased risk of ovarian cancer with specific variants of LS.
  • Lynch syndrome is the leading cause of hereditary colorectal cancer (CRC).6,7 According to the American Cancer Society (ACS), 5 percent of CRC cases are associated with inherited genetic mutations. ACS estimates that there will be 145,000 new cases of colorectal in 2019 and LS will account for approximately 2 – 4 percent of these cancer cases. 
  • An accurate family health history is the best identifier of Lynch syndrome.8  Only 1 percent of the estimated 800,000 Americans with LS know they have the disorder. Patients do not typically find out they have LS until after a colorectal cancer diagnosis. Doctors do not recommend CRC patients get genetic screening for LS because of the rarity of the syndrome. Accurate family health history records remain the best strategy for identifying LS.

If you have Lynch Syndrome, talk to your doctor about how you can reduce your chances of getting cancers in the future.  Having Lynch syndrome increases your chances of getting colorectal, stomach, pancreatic, urinary tract, pancreas, brain, small bowel, endometrial, breast, ovarian and uterine cancers.

Learn more about family health history and find tools and worksheets to help you collect key information on our family health history page. If you have questions about your genetic health, reach out to Sarnoff Center or your doctor.

  1. Columbia University Irving Medical Center: Two New Breast Cancer Genes Emerge from Study of Lynch Syndrome
  2. American Cancer Society: Colorectal Cancer Risk Factors
  3. OncoLink: Ashkenazi Jewish Heritage and Genetic Risk
  4. Columbia University Irving Medical Center: Two New Breast Cancer Genes Emerge from Study of Lynch Syndrome
  5. NCCN: Genetic/Familial High-Risk Assessment: Breast and Ovarian
  6. American Cancer Society: Colorectal Cancer – Facts & Figures 2017-2019
  7. American Cancer Society: Key Statistics for Colorectal Cancer
  8. American Cancer Society: Colorectal Cancer – Facts & Figures 2017-2019

Meet Melissa, the Sarnoff Center's Genetic Counselor

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From Melissa Ramos, MS, MLS (ASCP), LCGC  

I am honored to be joining the Norton & Elaine Sarnoff Center for Jewish Genetics as the genetic counselor and coordinator for the carrier screening program! I am originally from Canada and completed my bachelor’s degree in Medical Science specializing in Physiology and Pharmacology at the University of Western Ontario. After graduation, I moved to Detroit to be a medical technologist at the Detroit Medical Center. While I loved working in the lab, I missed being with patients! After researching as many healthcare professions as possible, I discovered genetic counseling. I was fortunate to attend the Northwestern University Graduate Program where I received my master’s degree in Genetic Counseling. I had the opportunity to work as a prenatal genetic counselor in the Maternal Fetal Medicine division at Loyola University Medical Center for nearly five years prior to joining the team at the Sarnoff Center. I love being able to help people understand their families' genetic risks and educate them on cutting edge technologies. I am especially excited to participate in the community-based work of the Sarnoff Center. In my free time, I enjoy watching movies, spending time with friends and family, and exploring the different restaurants and neighborhoods that Chicago has to offer.

You can reach me at MelissaRamos@juf.org or 312-357-4658.



Affordable, Accessible Genetic Screening in Illinois

Our affordable, accessible carrier screening program uses advanced technology to provide comprehensive screening for Jewish and interfaith couples. Visit our Get Screened page to learn more and register.


Do You Know What's In Your Genes?

What is the most valuable gift you can give to your family? The gift of good health! There are many health conditions that run in families. Knowing your family health history can alert you to the potential risk for a variety of genetic disorders . Talk to your relatives for warning signs and assess your risk for hereditary cancers.

Did you know: Ashkenazi Jews are 10 TIMES more likely to have BRCA mutations, which significantly increases lifetime risks for hereditary cancers, so what does this heightened risk mean for you? Click here to learn more .