When she approached her synagogue sisterhood at Temple Emanuel of North Jersey with the idea of sponsoring a free public educational program about breast cancer, Hannah Lee Gold of Wayne was driven not only by her own interest but by the knowledge that many women — and men — do not know the variety of resources available to help them prevent, or face, this condition.
“My father had breast cancer,” Ms. Gold said; nevertheless, her insurance company denied her coverage for a genetic test. “I dropped it at that point,” she said, because the tests are extremely expensive. But then, several months ago, she learned that Sharsheret — a national Teaneck-based not-for-profit organization that supports young Jewish women and their families who face breast cancer — was sponsoring a webinar on the subject. She called the organization and spoke with their genetic counselor, who put her in touch with a company that could help her.
“They found someone who would take my insurance,” Ms. Gold said. “I met with her and she explained the panel of tests. She said that if they were negative, I wouldn’t have to proceed with further tests.” Fortunately, they were negative, although Ms. Gold understands that this does not guarantee that she will never get breast cancer. “I did it for my children,” said Ms. Gold, who has a son and a daughter. “My father had first cousins who had breast cancer, and there was an aunt on my mother’s side.”
She said she knows of several men who have had breast cancer, and stressed that men should not assume that the program is for women only. “I wanted to offer a public program because I believe this is so important,” she said. With the proper information, “there are lives that are going to be saved and people who will have a better quality of life. I’m a strong believer that if you have information, share it.”
Ms. Gold is a big fan of Sharsheret, not only because of her own experience but because of the many services it provides. She hopes that people will attend the June 12 program, “What’s Jewish about Breast Cancer?”, because even if breast cancer does not affect them directly, “they may know somebody or will meet somebody who could benefit from the information.”
Elana Silber, Sharsheret’s executive director, noted that one in eight women will develop breast cancer at some point. “While there is no data yet on the incidence of breast cancer among Jewish women, Jewish women and men have a ten times greater risk of inheriting the BRCA gene,” which increases the risk of getting breast and ovarian cancer, she said. Indeed, women who carry the BRCA mutation have an 80 to 85 percent chance of developing breast cancer.
Ms. Silber agrees with Ms. Gold that seminars such as the upcoming program at Temple Emanuel are vitally important. “We want people to understand both the risk and the measures they can take,” she said. “Educational seminars like these are life-saving.”
While the BRCA mutation is significant, many people do not realize that there are other genetic mutations to consider, Ms. Silber continued. PalB2 and Chek2 also have been identified as carrying possible risks. “A woman may be negative for BRCA, but that doesn’t mean that there’s not something else,” she said. “Getting a negative BRCA result does not mean no risk of breast cancer. It reduces the risk, but it’s not a free pass” to ignore family history.
Ms. Gold said that “many women are struggling with how to approach their personal history and what to do.” She wants them to know that Sharsheret, which offers its services at no cost, “is completely confidential. We understand what it is to be a young woman.”
Ms. Silber said that mammograms still are considered “the best screening modality, although there is a strong emphasis on using other modalities if you have dense breasts. Ask your radiologist,” she urged, noting that ultrasounds also may be used. “Talk to your health care professional and know your family history.
“Every diagnosis is individualized, so every course of action should be individualized as well,” she said. “While no two breast cancer diagnoses are the same, Sharsheret has a peer support network of more than 8,000 participants, allowing women to reach out and speak to someone who can share in their experience.”
Peer support is extremely helpful, she continued. “You may find that your health care professional gives you two options and you don’t know which to choose. Through peer support you may find out someone’s experience with option A and someone else’s experience with option B.” Sharsheret’s genetic counselor also can help women talk to their families about their condition. “If [family members] are in different places, we can help coordinate a conference call,” she said.
At the June 12 seminar, Sharsheret will be represented by Melissa Rosen, the organization’s director of national outreach. Ms. Rosen travels across the country visiting college campuses, among other places. “We offer a robust education and outreach program,” Ms. Silber said. The organization reaches about 67,000 people each year. “Women and families stay connected, before, during, and after” breast cancer.
“Information is empowering,” she said. “Sharsheret is empowering women to make informed decisions,” providing psychosocial information, guidance on how to deal with young children during the illness, or cosmetic side-effects, among other topics. The organization’s survivorship program is geared to “help at any point during or beyond.
“Everyone needs to be vigilant,” she said. “While cancer genetics is a hot topic, 90 percent [of cases] are not attributable to specific genetic mutations. But once you know, you can take action.”
Sharsheret has visited more than 100 synagogues throughout the country. According to Ms. Silber, one of the organization’s most significant educational ventures is Pink Shabbat, “bringing a discussion of breast cancer into the Shabbat experience.” Depending on the synagogue’s needs, the organization may have a cancer survivor speak from the bimah, or show a video, or share its resources during services. Congregations, decked in pink, “dedicate the weekend to increased awareness.”
While Sharsheret has particular expertise with young women and Jewish families, “we serve women and men from all backgrounds,” said Silber. Indeed, 15 percent of those who use its services do not identify as Jewish. As for age, “we let women self-define.”
For more information about Sharsheret, call (201) 833-2341 or go to sharsheret.org.
Who: Temple Emanuel of North Jersey will sponsor a program
What: “What’s Jewish about Breast Cancer?” featuring a presentation by Melissa Rosen, Sharsheret’s national outreach director
When: On June 12 at 7:30 p.m.
Where: At the synagogue, 558 High Mountain Road, Franklin Lakes
For more information: Go to the shul’s website, www.tenjfl.org, or call (201) 560-0200