Jewish statistics on breast cancer prompt prevention program

Posted Wednesday, Oct 30th, 2013
Naperville Sun

Angelina Jolie’s preventative double mastectomy to reduce her chance of getting cancer had the unlikely ripple effect of inspiring an educational program for The Rohr Jewish Learning Institute.

An Ounce of Prevention: BRCA, Genetic Testing and Preventative Measures, was developed by JLI for more than 300 locations around the world and is being held in recognition of National Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

“Nowadays, at some point or another, everyone faces an extremely difficult medical decision that they aren’t equipped to handle,” said Rabbi Zalman Abraham of JLI’s headquarters in Brooklyn, N.Y. “Our objective with this course is to acquaint the public with fascinating Jewish perspectives on some of the most cutting-edge dilemmas in medical ethics.”

Topics discussed during the six-week session will include prolonging life, organ transplants, digital autopsies and more. The program will be presented Oct. 29 locally by Rabbi Mendy Goldstein, director of Chabad Jewish Center in Naperville.

Jewish women of Ashkenazi (eastern European) descent have a much higher risk than the general population of carrying mutations of the BRCA gene. Women with the gene mutation in turn have a 50 to 80 percent risk of developing breast cancer and 20 percent 40 percent risk of developing ovarian cancer.

Goldstein said the statistics are frightening and leave women with difficult decisions.

“Having to face decisions of such complexity has led many women to avoid addressing the issue altogether,” Goldstein said. “But with mortality rates so high, this is hardly a problem the Jewish community can afford to ignore.”

“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,” Goldstein said. “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.”

Medical technology, Goldstein said, dramatically increases the availability of preventative measures, including genetic screening and radical mastectomies and oophorectomies.

“We’ll look at what the numbers are, the statistics of people with the gene, what screening measures are available, and what preventions and procedures are available,” he said. “We’ll talk about what someone is obligated by Jewish law to do in terms of taking care of their health.”

An Ounce of Prevention will address Jewish laws and views on this and related medical dilemmas.

“Jewish law says that a person has to take care of their health,” he said. “They have to watch their body. We’ll discuss what that means.”

The community at large is welcome to attend the class.

“There’s going to be a lot of information about breast cancer; general information, not just from a Jewish perspective,” Goldstein said. “This would be relevant for Jews and non-Jews to attend.” 

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