Celebrity Angelina Jolie's recent decision to opt for prophylactic surgery after she determined she is a carrier of a mutation in the BRCA1 gene has prompted media attention the world over. Media descriptions of her “Jewish gene”, however, are misguided.
In fact, BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes are found in every man and woman, regardless of religious, ethnic, or cultural background. To refer to them as "Jewish genes" misinforms the public, leaving thousands of young women and men who may not be of Jewish descent, or who are uncertain of their family origin as a result of adoption, unaware that they, too, may be at risk of hereditary breast or ovarian cancer.
One in 40 Jews of Ashkenazi descent carries a mutation in the BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene, compared to 1 in 345 men and women in the general population. It is important to note that hereditary cancers that may result from genetic mutations account for only 5-10 percent of breast cancers overall. Those mutations — not the genes themselves — are at the heart of Ms. Jolie's decision. Each mutation increases significantly the likelihood that a carrier will develop breast cancer (80-85 percent), ovarian cancer (40-60 percent), or related cancers in their lifetimes.
Moreover, BRCA1 and BRCA2 mutations are not solely the concern of women. Men, too, carry these genes, and may pass mutations down to their children. All women — and men — should understand their family history of cancer to determine if they may be at increased risk of these mutations, particularly those in the Ashkenazi Jewish community with a strong family history of related cancers.
Know your family history.
It sounds so simple, doesn’t it? But for thousands of Jewish families whose members were killed during World War II, tracing multiple generations of family history can be a difficult, if not impossible, task. And for those Jews living in communities in which conversations about cancer and disease are still considered taboo, the reticence to discuss genetics and mutations compounds an already difficult discussion.
Ms. Jolie's decision to write about her experience presents a unique opportunity to educate the public – and the Jewish community at increased risk — about genetic mutations that to date have received little attention. It is critical to continue that education with accurate and reliable information that will enable thousands of men and women to take appropriate control of their health and make informed decisions.
Rochelle L. Shoretz is founder and executive director of Sharsheret, an organization helping Jewish women with breast cancer.