Workshops to address cancer risk in Jewish women

Pink Ribbon stockThe risk of carrying a BRCA gene mutation that causes breast and ovarian cancer is 10 times greater among women of Ashkenazi Jewish descent than among the general population which is why awareness workshops addressing the issue will be held on Oct. 29 and Nov. 3.

With growing concern over what preventive measures Jewish women should take, the Rohr Jewish Learning Institute (JLI) in Greenwich is organizing these events which will focus on how Jewish law views this modern day medical dilemma.

The workshops 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 undergo radical mastectomies or oophorectomies in case they do test positive, in order to save their lives.

One in 40 women of Ashkenazi Jewish descent carry a BRCA gene mutation compared to about one in 400 in the general population. If she carries the mutation, there is a 50 to 80% risk she will develop breast cancer, starting as early as her twenties, and a 20 to 40% 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 disease until it has already reached stage three or four, and is then difficult to treat.

“Statistics like these are leaving women in the Jewish community with some tough decisions to make,” said JLI Rabbi Menachem Feldman. “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 Feldman. “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.”

Call 203-629-9059 or visit for registration and other course-related information. JLI courses are presented in Greenwich by Chabad of Greenwich.

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