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, Chabad of Greater Hartford in West Hartford is organizing a community awareness workshop on how Jewish law views this modern day medical dilemma.
The class, being held Monday Nov 11th at 7:30pm 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 being co-sponsored by the Susan G. Komen Foundation, offered by Chabad’s Jewish Learning Institute in 362 communities in honor of National Breast Cancer Awareness Month. It is the first class of a new six-week course, titled Life in the Balance, about the Jewish perspective on everyday medical dilemmas. The course is accredited for Continuing Medical and Legal Education, and can help medical professionals develop a greater sensitivity to the concerns and decisions facing some of their Jewish patients.
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 Rabbi Shaya Gopin of Chabad “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 class 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.
“Some 1,500 years ago when rabbinic scholars wrote the Talmud, they didn't have questions about screening for cancer genes like we have today,” said Rabbi Shaya Gopin “However, there are guiding principles found in the Talmud that can help us determine how to respond to these very perplexing and life-altering medical quandaries. One of the Talmud’s most important lessons that must guide our response is that saving one life is like saving an entire world.”
JLI, the adult education branch of Chabad Lubavitch, 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. 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.