By Cindy Mindell
October is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and Jewish Family Service will educate and empower the community with a wellness symposium on Monday, Oct. 7 at Whole Foods Market in Darien.
Among the speakers addressing nutrition, physical fitness, the BRCA gene, and emotional wellbeing will be a genetic counselor from the national organization, Sharsheret, who will discuss how breast and ovarian cancers specifically affect Ashkenazi Jews.
Sharsheret was founded in November 2001 by Rochelle Shoretz, who recognized the need for a breast-cancer organization sensitive to the cultural needs of young Jewish women and families after her own diagnosis at age 28.
In November 2001, while undergoing chemotherapy treatment, the former law clerk to United States Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg started Sharsheret – Hebrew for “chain” – a national not-for-profit organization providing support and resources for Jewish women and families facing breast cancer and ovarian cancer. Since 2010, Shoretz has served as a member of the Federal Advisory Committee on Breast Cancer in Young Women under the auspices of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. She is now living with Stage IV breast cancer.
The concerns of pre-menopausal women facing breast cancer are unique. Young women are dating, marrying, having children, and raising children. Their cancers tend to be more aggressive, may result in early menopause, and are associated with higher mortality rates, yet breast-cancer research studies often fail to include pre-menopausal women. Young Jewish women face additional concerns, including the increased genetic risk for breast cancer and ovarian cancer in families of Ashkenazi/Eastern European descent – one in 40 Jewish males and females carries a mutation in the BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene that can trigger these cancers – as well as the role of Jewish spirituality in daily life with cancer and in healing, and cultural norms surrounding dating, marriage, and fertility.
Since the organization’s founding, Sharsheret has launched 11 national programs and responded to more than 24,000 inquiries from those affected by breast cancer, healthcare professionals, and women’s organizations. For its critical services, Sharsheret was awarded the New York State Innovation in Breast Cancer Research Award and a multi-year grant from the Federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to develop a program for Jewish breast-cancer survivors.
“Two days before my 40th birthday, I was diagnosed with Stage III cancer,” says Fairfield County resident and young mother Nikki, who prefers to exclude her last name. “I didn’t want to call an organization; I didn’t think of myself as someone who needed additional support, but I thought maybe they could hook me up to somebody who could educate me and give me another perspective on what I’d been going through. I picked up the phone and I gained an instant family. There is no other organization that puts so much thought and care into their resources.”
At the Oct. 7 event, Sharsheret’s genetic counselor, Danielle Singer, will talk about the genetics of breast cancer and ovarian cancer, genetic counseling and testing, and preventative measures. In addition, she will address some of the unique concerns of young Jewish women and families facing hereditary breast and ovarian cancer and how Sharsheret helps people manage these issues.
Singer developed an interest in the field after growing up active in the Jewish community. “I am therefore passionate about the unique concerns of Ashkenazi Jews with regard to genetics and genetic testing,” she says. “Several years ago, a very close family friend told me her breast-cancer story and her experience testing positive for a BRCA mutation and sharing that information with her daughters. I thought, what better way to combine everything I am passionate about to help Jewish women and families?”
Singer earned a Master of Science degree in genetic counseling from Brandeis University in 2012. As a Sharsheret staff-member, she provides supportive counseling, information, and resources regarding hereditary breast cancer and ovarian cancer to women diagnosed or at high risk of developing breast cancer and ovarian cancer and their families. “Genetic counseling is a combination of everything I am interested in,” she says: “Counseling, science, medicine, genetics and education.”
“It is important for women to know and be aware of their options; not everyone chooses to do the same thing,” Singer says. “In fact, not every person decides to pursue genetic testing. What IS important is for women to speak with a genetic counselor or professional if they are concerned about their personal or family history, to decide whether genetic testing is right for them, and to learn what information it can provide for their own health and that of their family.”
Singer says that she hopes attendees at the wellness symposium will walk away feeling aware of their own family history and empowered to think about the steps they need to take in order to care for their personal and family health.
“Jewish women and families have unique concerns, and Sharsheret can help,” she says. Sharsheret’s Genetics for Life program offers several free educational and support resources: a confidential hotline; family conference calls; a peer-support network to connect young women one-on-one with others who are at increased risk for hereditary breast cancer and ovarian cancer; our booklet, Your Jewish Genes: Hereditary Breast Cancer and Ovarian Cancer; and health seminars presented nationwide to educate Jewish women and men about the importance of understanding family medical history as it relates to their own health.
The Oct. 7 program will also include presentations on nutrition and diet by educator and nutritionist Raema Salmon, certified in natural health and nutrition in South Africa; physical fitness by Lori Price, Stamford JCC managing director of sports, fitness and aquatics; and emotional well-being by therapist and author Fran Dorf.
Sharsheret Supports Stamford Wellness Symposium in Honor of Breast Cancer Awareness Month: Monday, Oct. 7, 6:30-8:30 p.m. | Whole Foods Market, 150 Ledge Road, Darien | Registration: Eve Moskowitz, JFS Director of Clinical Services, (203) 921-4161, ext. 22 / firstname.lastname@example.org
Sharsheret Releases new Financial Wellness Tool Kit
Sharsheret, the national non-profit organization supporting young Jewish women facing breast cancer (see story p. 20), has released a Financial Wellness Tool Kit as part of the organization’s Financial Wellness program, which seeks to empower women and families to take control of their financial well-being during a health crisis. The Took Kit features guidelines from experts in the fields of insurance, disability, financial planning, and estate planning; tools to record and organization personal information; vital resources; and helpful tips from other Jewish women who have faced illness.
To learn more about Sharsheret or to order a free kit, call (866) 474-2774, or visit sharsheret.org.
Israelis give a double punch to triple-negative breast cancer
By Karin Kloosterman/ISRAEL.21c.org
Breast cancer can be curable if it’s caught soon enough – unless it is the “triple negative” type more likely to target young, black or Hispanic women.
Israeli researchers from the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot are opening a new window of hope for the daughters and granddaughters of women diagnosed with triple-negative breast cancer. The cancer carries a strong genetic link and it is also found in people of Jewish Ashkenazi (Eastern European) ancestry.
“It’s quite a difficult disease,” says Prof. Yosef Yarden, a lead researcher in the new study from the institute’s Biological Regulation Department. “Women who are initially treated with chemotherapy show a good response, but they eventually develop resistance to the chemical therapy. They die within seven or eight years,” he tells ISRAEL21c.
Yarden and his colleague Prof. Michael Sela have determined that a two-antibody approach may increase survival rates, and reduce the odds of reoccurrence.
The cancer is called “triple negative” because it is lacking three hormone receptors that give fuel to most cancerous tumors – estrogen, progesterone and HER2.
Successful hormone blockers like Herceptin do not work, and there is no solution for triple-negative cancer, Yarden says.
The Israelis’ experimental approach employs tactics to mimic the way the body normally defends itself against cancer.
As scientists do, Yarden and Sela began by studying the scientific literature to see what’s been done to solve the problem of triple-negative breast cancer. They challenged themselves to target the cancer in a new way: Instead of attacking one antibody on the tumor surface, which is how Herceptin works, they would look for another doorway.
They read that about 30 percent of all women with triple-negative cancer had higher than normal rates of EGFR, a growth hormone receptor. This presented a unique subtype of the triple-negative breast cancer to research.
Drugs that block EGFR have proven ineffective against these tumors. Going back to the drawing board, the Israeli team decided to deliver a double punch by combining two different antibodies to two different parts of the receptors.
And their hunch showed a positive effect: Breast-cancer cells shrunk in both animal models and in the Petri dish.
If this approach is developed into a drug, it might treat about five percent of all breast cancer patients, a meaningful proportion considering the aggressiveness of triple negative, says Yarden.
In their studies, the researchers subsequently uncovered a new cancer-blocking mechanism: using the double antibody approach, they were not only able to block EGFR, but the sheer weight of the antibodies attaching to the tumors caused individual cancer cells to collapse.
A breast-cancer vaccine?
While the tests are very positive, they have only been done on animals so far. Further collaboration with pharmaceutical companies will be needed to fund progress toward a viable drug alternative, Yarden says.
After their research was published in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, industry and potential research partners started reaching out.
A new antibody is sought –– one that could synergistically activate the two already on the market. These two existing antibodies do not show a synergistic effect since they are both attracted to the same receptor on the cancer cell.
Genetic engineering and a molecular approach might be a step in the right direction, Yarden surmises.
A vaccination against cancer would be the ultimate goal.
“What we are doing is the building block for future vaccines –– either in active immunotherapy, where a patient will actively make antibodies; or in a passive approach, where we will provide the antibodies to the patient. Passive is used widely, while active is kind of a dream and a vision for the field. We have a much longer way to go,” says Yarden.
This article originally appeared on ISRAEL.21c.org.