Program tackles risk Jews face from genes

Posted Friday, Oct 18th, 2013
Columbus Dispatch

In response to her sister’s diagnosis and then death from breast cancer, Kathy Worly has spent countless hours volunteering to help others battling the disease.

To safeguard her own health, she gets regular mammograms. But she has forgone a genetic test increasingly sought by close relatives of women diagnosed with breast cancer.

As a Jewish woman with ancestors from eastern Europe, Worly knows she has a higher chance than other women do of carrying a BRCA gene mutation that increases a woman’s odds of developing breast and ovarian cancer. But because no other relatives were afflicted with the disease, she’s passed on genetic testing.

“I’ve chosen not to do it yet,” she said, “and it’s a big choice, it’s a big decision.”

Worly plans to take an upcoming course exploring the issue, offered at the Columbus Jewish Foundation on the East Side and the Lori Schottenstein Chabad Center in New Albany.

The Rohr Jewish Learning Institute, which is putting on the course, says it will look at how Jewish law can help women determine if they should be tested for the gene and, if testing positive, whether they should consider mastectomy or ovary removal.

It’s the first segment of a six-part health series called “Life in the Balance: Jewish Perspectives on Everyday Medical Dilemmas,” being offered nationwide.

Even though Jewish tradition is thousands of years old, the Talmud book of Jewish law offers wisdom and guidance that can help answer modern-day questions, said Rabbi Areyah Kaltmann of the Lori Schottenstein Chabad Center.

“People, they want to know, ‘Where do you draw the line between being vigilant and just panicking?’” he said. “The more people learn about it, the less they’re frightened.”

Women of Ashkenazi Jewish descent, with ancestors from eastern or central Europe, have a 1 in 40 chance of carrying the gene mutation, compared with about 1 in 400 in the general population, according to the institute.

Women carrying the gene have a 50 to 80 percent greater risk of developing breast cancer and a 20 to 40 percent greater risk for ovarian cancer.

Dr. Abraham Mikalov of Advanced Breast Care on the Far East Side said close relatives of women who carry the mutation have a greater risk of carrying it, too. Another issue faced by women who test positive is determining their responsibility to share the results and the best way to do so, especially with their children.

“In the Jewish religion … the No. 1 commandment is to save a life, and so if you deny information to someone that potentially might lead to their survival, are you avoiding that and potentially creating an ethical problem for yourself?” he asked.

Women of all backgrounds and risk levels have had more questions about the testing since actress Angelina Jolie disclosed in May that she had undergone a prophylactic mastectomy after a positive test for a BRCA mutation, said Rebecca Nagy, a genetic counselor and associate professor of clinical internal medicine at Ohio State University.

Nagy said some women making decisions about genetic testing do fall back on their faith and most rely on family for help.

“I think they turn to family quite a bit, and I think if you’re from a culture where family is valued and at the center of the culture, that becomes even more important,” she said.

“Life in the Balance: Jewish Perspectives on Everyday Medical Dilemmas” will be offered at the Columbus Jewish Foundation, 1175 College Ave., from 7:15 to 9 p.m. for six Mondays beginning on Oct. 28, and at the Lori Schottenstein Chabad Center, 6220 E. Dublin-Granville Rd., New Albany, from 7:30 to 9 p.m. for six Wednesdays beginning on Oct. 30. For information and fees, call 614-939-0765 or visit

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