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SLU expert will discuss genetic cancer risks for Ashkenazi Jews

Suzanne Mahon

An upcoming event is set to inform the St. Louis community on the prevalence of certain forms of cancer among Ashkenazi Jews.

“Understand Cancer Risk: Genetics and More” will be presented Tuesday, April 24, at the Jewish Community Center in Creve Coeur.

“We expect that it is going to be really well received in the community,” Shira Kraft said. “There are a lot of people who need and want to know this information.”

Kraft is president of Nishmah, which hosts Sharsheret Supports in collaboration with the national Sharsheret organization. Sharsheret, or “chain” in Hebrew, helps women and their families who have been diagnosed with ovarian or breast cancer.

This month’s event will focus on remarks by Suzanne Mahon, a certified genetics nurse and professor at St. Louis University.  She’ll address topics related to genetic risks for breast cancer, what testing involves and its limitations.

“She has expertise is assessing cancer risk in certain hereditary cancer syndromes and cancer prevention and early detection,” Kraft said. “She will be speaking about the most up-to-date research and information on genetic testing, the importance of examining one’s family history and assessing one’s cancer risk. She’ll talk about misconceptions as it relates to genetics and family history.”

Certain mutations in genes known as BRCA1 and BRCA2 have been linked to higher rates of breast cancer in Ashkenazi Jews. Mahon said that seeing whether other family members have been diagnosed – particularly those under the age of 50 – is important.

“One in 40 persons of that ancestry carries one of three BRCA mutations,” she said. “That’s important to know.”

By contrast, about one in 400 have such a mutation in the general population.

Mahon said some women have turned to direct-to-consumer genetic testing kits as a do-it-yourself option for understanding their potential risk. However, she said, those kits can have limitations and just look at certain genetic “hotspots.” She believes a consultation with a health professional is important.

“We can do a more in-depth assessment and see if genetic testing might be an option for that family and guide them through that process,” she said.

Mahon said other maladies such as colon or ovarian cancer can also have hereditary risk factors.

“We want people to be aware of their family history, and if you don’t know, you need to ask what that history looks like,” she said.

If a patient does discover he or she is at risk for certain cancers, steps can be taken to mitigate the possibility of developing an illness. Abstention from alcohol and cigarettes, a reduction in processed or fatty foods, and an increase in fruits, vegetables and moderate exercise could help lower one’s risk factors.

“It is a moment to stop and say, ‘What does my lifestyle look like? How healthy of a lifestyle am I living?’ ” Mahon said. “There are things you can do that are important for everybody. They may be more important in persons who have hereditary risk, but they are certainly important for everyone because we know that about 30 percent of all cancers are directly related to diet and inadequate exercise.”

Mahon said she hopes people will approach the event with an open mind.

“The best thing you can do is become more informed and ask questions,” she said. “There really are a lot of resources to help guide patients so they have the testing that is appropriate and they are informed about what the results mean.”

Participants at the event will also hear from a “previvor,” someone who will talk about living with an increased predisposition to cancer although she hasn’t developed the disease.

Refreshments will be available at the gathering, which is free and open to the public.

An hour before the program, a free, kosher dinner will be held for women in their 20s and 30s hosted by Nerot: Young Women of Nishmah (see infobox for RSVP details). Attendees will hear from a social worker speaking on issues related to cancer in their age group.

For more information on Sharsheret, visit nishmah.org or contact Debbi Braunstein at 314-442-3266 or sharsheret@jccstl.org.