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BRCA not just a Jewish women’s issue

New studies in the last year have shone an even greater light on the risks in the Jewish community related to mutations in the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes. 

BRCA image

New studies in the last year have shone an even greater light on the risks in the Jewish community related to mutations in the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes. 

The BRCA genes (commonly pronounced BRAH-CAH) are named for BReast CAncer, because it is mutations in those genes that cause hereditary forms of breast cancer. In the general population, BRCA mutations occur in about 1 in 400 persons. Among people of Ashkenazi descent, that number rises to 1 in 40-a tenfold increase. 

Women with BRCA mutations face a 56-67 percent lifetime risk for breast cancer, and a 27-44 percent lifetime risk for ovarian cancer, significantly higher than for persons without these mutations. But those figures alone don't tell the whole story about BRCA, because of two facts not widely known outside of the medical community. 

The first is that BRCA mutations increase individual risk for several kinds of cancer in addition to breast cancer. Genetic research links BRCA mutations to certain hereditary forms of prostate and pancreatic cancer as well. 

The second is that while breast cancer is more common in women, men get breast cancer too. Among men with BRCA mutations, the lifetime risk can be up to 7 percent, many times higher than for men without the BRCA mutations. 

Men in general seek much less medical care, particularly preventative care, than women. Combined with the general lack of awareness about male breast cancer, we find a serious awareness gap within our community around these issues.

Fortunately, new partners have recently emerged to help bring more attention to this rarely articulated and poorly understood problem with two forthcoming documentaries. 

Inspired by her own family's story, Lori M. Berlin is the producer and director of Men Have Breasts Too. Berlin, who shared her own story recently on the Center for Jewish Genetic's blog, describes the project as "a labor of love" to honor her cousin, her family, and the many people she met along the way when dealing with her own positive test for a BRCA mutation. The film features the stories of men and their families dealing with male breast cancer. 

Another friend of the Center, Alan Blassberg, is making Pink & Blue. Besides exploring BRCA risks in general, Blassberg's film sheds light on needed cultural and medical changes necessary to help men get the help they need without shame or embarrassment. The name of the film alludes to these issues, with the color pink dominating the discussion of breast cancer in the U.S. 

Both of these films originate with the lived experiences of Jewish families. We view them as important contributions to   awareness of BRCA mutations in general and male breast cancer specifically in the Jewish community. At the Center, we plan to do our part too. 

As part of our expanded education and programming related to hereditary cancer, the Center will present a large-scale community education event this fall, on Oct. 14. The program, designed for individuals with questions and concerns about BRCA, will feature a panel of local experts and a keynote presentation by Dr. Susan Domchek of the Basser Center for BRCA. The event will be held in the northern suburbs on Oct. 14 at a to-be-determined venue. 

For anyone of Ashkenazi origin, learning more about BRCA may prompt more questions than answers. One we hear frequently is: "Should I get screened?"

The decision to seek screening is a personal one. For those with a personal or family history of cancer, screening may be the right approach. For persons without any such history, the answer may be more complicated. Some researchers advocate that all women of Ashkenazi descent receive screening, but this recommendation remains controversial. 

For anyone considering screening, we at the Center advocate taking an approach that starts with a conversation with a genetic counselor who can take a family history, describe in detail what a screening test can and cannot tell you, and help you think through what you will do with the information depending on your results. 

Our Center does not perform BRCA screening, but we can help get you started by connecting you to the right resources. 

For more information about our upcoming BRCA event and other issues related to Jewish Genetic Health, visit the Center's website at .

Jason Rothstein, MPH, is Director of the Center for Jewish Genetics. The Center for Jewish Genetics is a cooperative effort of the Jewish United
Fund/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago and the Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children's Hospital of Chicago.


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