Reflecting on 2015, we realized that the Program for Jewish Genetic Health gave around 40 live talks over the course of the year, to a wide variety of target audiences (not to mention the online “lessons” we release on MyJewishGeneticHealth.com to a worldwide audience). In thinking about the talks I personally have given over the last few months, I realized that many times the questions come after the Q&A portion, even weeks after. Sometimes the “asker” was aware of the fact that their question was too personal in nature, other times the asker may have thought their question would seem naïve. Occasionally, the asker has been thinking for a while about the topic and comes up with an inquiry that is rather deep.
Here are two examples of recurring personal questions that I have received after my BRCA-centered talks. As a brief review, mutations in the BRCA genes predispose women and men to developing certain kinds of cancers including breast, ovarian, pancreatic, and more. BRCA mutations can run in families and be inherited by children. Women and men who are shown by genetic testing to carry BRCA gene mutations have options to reduce and manage their cancer risks. About 1 in 40 individuals of Ashkenazi Jewish descent are believed to carry a BRCA mutation, even if there is no significant incidence of BRCA cancers in their families.
Question 1: My grandmother had XX cancer and my aunt had XX cancer. Do you think I need to consider BRCA testing?
The answer to this one is easy—I always remind the asker that I am not a genetic counselor or a genetic healthcare provider, and I advise them that they should consider meeting with one of those professionals to discuss their family cancer history. A good online resource for finding a genetic counselor anywhere in the US and Canada is http://nsgc.org/p/cm/ld/fid=164 (make sure to search under the ‘cancer’ in ‘types of specialization’). I also advise them to try to collect as much family cancer history information (including cancer type and age of diagnosis) as possible, so that if they ultimately decide to pursue genetic testing for hereditary cancer, the most appropriate (and most current) test can be ordered based on that family history.
Question 2: Given the 1 in 40 carrier rate of BRCA mutations in Ashkenazi Jews, have you yourself gotten tested?
For a long time, the answer was no, I am just not ready. The decision to pursue genetic testing is a very personal one, and several factors need to be considered including whether the timing is right to deal with the knowledge and its implications. More recently, the tides have turned for me, in part due to two comments that reverberate in my mind and heart. The first is something one of our Program genetic counselors likes to say–“Finding out that one has a BRCA mutation doesn’t change anything about whether that mutation is there or not…finding out allows an individual to be empowered to consider available options.” The other is a sentence from a recent New York Times piece by the author Elizabeth Wurtzel after her cancer diagnosis and ensuing surgery and chemotherapy—“I could have avoided all this if I had been tested for the BRCA mutation.”
Part of me appreciates that audience members reserve their very personal questions at the end of (and especially during :)) my talks, since usually these questions do not have generalizable value. Maybe though, in the realm of genetics and cancer prevention, every “story” has the potential for a broadly relevant take home message.
With the support of the Jewish Federation of Western Connecticut, we are grateful to be able to launch our newest lesson on MyJewishGeneticHealth.com addressing issues of mental health and mental illness in the Jewish community during Mental Illness Awareness Week. This lesson has been many months (and even years) in the making, and here’s why.
Since we launched MyJewishGeneticHealth.com back in May of 2013, we began getting requests to address mental illness in the Jewish community. While we had identified mental illness as an important issue to tackle, it was honestly a bit daunting, and we wanted to get the lesson right. Month after month, we would opt to develop other lessons, since we weren’t quite sure about how to approach mental illness on our online education platform. However, whenever we came across a particularly striking article or useful resource on the topic, we filed it away, hoping that it would come in handy once we were ready to prepare our mental illness lesson. And the requests kept coming in.
At first, we tried identifying an expert lecturer who could do it all. We wanted it to be a person who could approach mental illness in a sensitive and community-oriented way, yet still speak about the hereditary components to mental illness. Finding such a person felt almost impossible. We finally realized that we didn’t need just one person, but similar to someone suffering from mental illness, we needed a team. So we changed up our model, and were able to identify three different expert lecturers to approach mental illness from different perspectives: the psychologist/community perspective, the genetic counselor/hereditary perspective, and the mental illness advocate/personal perspective. We really hope that listening to their videos is informative, eye-opening, and inspiring.
And that repository of articles and resources? Oh we went through that too. Days were spent poring over articles, listening to personal experiences, identifying and speaking to support groups, and becoming entrenched in the world of mental illness. It is heavy, and yet, unbelievably important.
About 1 in 5 (20% of) adults in the U.S. experience a mental illness. These numbers are not anticipated to be much different in the Jewish community. Mental illness is VERY common, and unfortunately, there is a still great deal of stigma in the Jewish community associated with mental illness, stemming from concerns about marriageability. This lesson is not just for those who suffer from, or have suffered from mental illness, it is for the whole community. Chances are, even if no one in your family has suffered from mental illness, one of your friends, neighbors, or co-workers has. As with most things, a little bit of education, awareness, and understanding can go a long way. Ignoring the issue doesn’t make it go away, it just means that as a community we are not addressing it, and people aren’t getting the help that they need.
We decided to launch this lesson during Mental Illness Awareness Week and around World Mental Health Day, which this year, falls on the heels of the Jewish holiday season. Preparing this lesson has given us at the Program for Jewish Genetic Health a great deal of perspective and has made us take pause to consider how deeply some in our community are suffering. Our hope is that this lesson will stick with all of us as we exit this season of introspection, and that there will be takeaway lessons that can have an impact on individuals, families and the greater Jewish community.
Yesterday I made the whole team cry. Thankfully it wasn’t because I was making unreasonable requests related to productivity or deadlines. Instead, I had slotted off the morning so that we could all watch a movie together—Decoding Annie Parker (2013; we borrowed it from a local library). Without spoiling the entire plot for our readers, suffice it to say that the movie, based on actual events, follows a woman (Annie Parker) who has a strong family and then personal history of cancer. In parallel, the movie follows the decades of research by Dr. Mary-Claire King and her team on their road to discovering the BRCA1 gene.
We blog about the BRCA1 and the related BRCA2 genes regularly, but as a refresher—certain mutations in these genes lead to an increased risk to develop breast and ovarian cancer, among other cancer types. Additionally, BRCA1/2 mutations can be passed down from parents to offspring, and the chance of having a BRCA1/2 mutation is ten-fold greater in individuals of Ashkenazi Jewish descent than it is in the general population. BRCA “status” can be revealed by genetic testing, and BRCA mutation “carriers” have medical management options available to them for reducing the risk of developing cancers or for detecting cancers at a very early (and perhaps treatable) stage if they do develop.
It was my second time seeing the movie, and also my second time crying through it. But this time I also watched it with different eyes, since our Program has gotten more and more involved in the BRCA education and testing realms over the past two years. We talk and talk about the importance of knowing and discussing one’s family medical history. Even in the 1970s, before the concept of hereditary cancer predisposition syndromes existed, Annie Parker (and undoubtedly others like her) had the gut feeling that cancer was running in her family and that it was always lurking in the shadows, waiting to get her. And this caused Annie to live in constant fear and to obsess over things like breast self-exams, library searches, and diets.
In our times, we are fortunate to have the genetic knowledge about the implications of familial BRCA1/2 mutations and the ability to test for carrier status and to guide those who are identified as carriers. While being Ashkenazi Jewish is in and of itself a risk factor for carrying a BRCA mutation, this risk factor is exacerbated by having a family history of BRCA-related cancers. Under current guidelines from the National Comprehensive Cancer Network, being Ashkenazi Jewish and having a first or second degree blood relative (meaning a parent, child, sibling, grandparent, grandchild, aunt/uncle or niece/nephew) who has had breast, ovarian or pancreatic cancer at any age would warrant pursuing BRCA testing (along with genetic counseling). Many of us probably fall into that category but don’t realize what this may connote.
Getting back to the movie and all those tears—it’s been a really busy summer at the PJGH so far, and it was definitely a welcome change of pace to have “PJGH movie in the morning.” It was also really powerful and authentic have a good “group cry.” I think the whole experience reinforced our joint commitment to protecting the genetic health of the Jewish community and its future generations. But I still need to think about why the team is rallying for seeing Pitch Perfect together next.
PS The movie we saw (at work) was pretty graphic on multiple levels–consider yourselves warned…
Genetic counselors tend to be very attuned to the details in the ‘big picture.’ We take very detailed family histories when we meet with patients because we look for patterns which may suggest a hereditary component to a family’s medical concerns. We are trained to think critically and to not just accept things as chance.
This method of thinking is a skill we need in the workplace, but I find that it is difficult for me to separate my ‘work brain’ from my ‘real life brain.’ When I identify a situation where I believe that a genetics evaluation or genetic testing may be appropriate for an individual or a family, it’s hard to “turn off” the instinct, even if the situation is in my personal life where the person or family involved is not my patient.
On occasion, I will see a mother with her kids at the supermarket or on the subway platform and something about the child’s appearance or behavior will make me wonder if there is something genetic going on in the family. Other times, I will hear about a young woman in the community who is struggling with cancer and whose mother had died young. Other people post on social media about praying for her, about helping the family by providing meals and childcare, and there will be comments about how sad it is that this family is going through so much. But my first thought will be: Hmmm, I wonder if there is a genetic basis to this family’s cancer. And even strangers who learn that I am a genetic counselor will tell me their stories about seeing a counselor years ago for their child’s developmental delays and how it was a waste of time since all the genetic testing was normal and nothing was solved.
It is times like these when I struggle to decide whether or not I should speak up and recommend a consultation with a genetic counselor (sometimes, a second visit is warranted since newer technologies have been developed and testing may be different). Close friends or family members who know that I work in the field of genetics would probably welcome my advice, but what do I do when I don’t know the person at all or I may know “of the” person, but we have no relationship? Am I overstepping my boundaries?
The answer is, perhaps. But as genetics professional, I feel that I have a responsibility to help families and my community by sharing my expertise. How to best approach it? That, I don’t know. I find that the solution is very case-by-case, and I need to try to determine how my advice will be received. I remember when my son was 6 months old, a friend of mine who is an occupational therapist mentioned to me that he tilts his head too much and I should consider a physical therapy evaluation. I thanked her for her gratuitous advice and got an appointment for him later that day (he’s doing fine now!). But would I want a stranger telling me to do something?
One good way to approach this, especially with a stranger or an acquaintance, would be to try to find an intermediary who may be better suited to reach out to the person. If I can find someone I trust who knows the person, perhaps he or she can broach the topic and tell them they know someone (me or another genetics professional) who can help them. Only if I am feeling very bold would I actually say something to a stranger. But I would just hate myself for walking away knowing that I had the opportunity to help someone. I hope that people do not see such advice as me trying to be nosy, but that they accept and appreciate that there are those people who may be able to help them, and that we genuinely want to be there for them as they struggle through a hard time.
I recognize that there will be situations where I can’t find an intermediary, and I can’t work up the courage to make recommendations to a complete stranger. That’s why publicizing the availability and importance of genetic counselors may help that family or other families in the future. The more that people recognize the utility of a genetic counseling visit, the more likely it will be that even if I can’t make the recommendation, perhaps someone else will.
I recently came across a blog post by a friend of a friend. She was opening up about her recent diagnosis of cancer. The beginning of her blog was something along the lines of “I’ve been running from my family history of cancer for as long as I can remember. Knowing that all of these people in my family had been diagnosed, I just kept on waiting for the grim reaper to come and get me too. Now that I’ve been diagnosed, I guess I’m not running anymore…”
I’ve heard this sentiment time and time again, both from patients and from friends. People recognize that their family history of cancer plays a role in their own risk for cancer, and many people live with this shadow hanging over their heads. The waiting and the worrying, the fatalism of it all; the sentiment of ‘these people in my family died cancer, and I know I’m going to develop cancer too, and there’s nothing I’m going to do but sit, wait for it to happen, and try to put it out of my mind.’
I recognize that different people approach fears and anxieties in different ways, but this “wait and do nothing” approach drives me NUTS. If you are aware that you have a strong family history of cancer, there are many practical things that you can and should do, other than sticking your head in the sand. Some of these things might save your life.
- Have regular annual visits with your primary doctor. This might be your primary care doctor (PCP) or family medicine doctor, or even gynecologist. Do not go to a doctor only once every 5 years when there is a problem. Tell your doctor if you have a family history of any medical issues. Routine preventive care can help you catch health problems before they become serious.
- Engage in screening for the cancers that run in your family. Unfortunately, effective screening tests do not exist for certain cancers. However effective screening tests do exist for many other cancers, for example, breast cancer, colon cancer, and skin cancer, to name a few. Speak to your doctor (see #1) to find out if effective screening exists for the cancers in your family. The rule of thumb is that your cancer screening should begin 10 years earlier than the youngest case in your immediate family.
- Stay away from tobacco. Stop smoking, and avoid second hand smoke. Smoking causes cancer. And for those who already may have a hereditary risk for cancer, smoking does not help you, my friend.
- Consider meeting with a genetic counselor. A genetic counselor will review your family history and give you a sense if he or she thinks there may be a hereditary component to the cancer in your family. The genetic counselor will also discuss with you your genetic testing options. Finding out that you have a hereditary predisposition to cancer may provide you with a better plan for cancer screening, or risk reducing options, and will help identify other family members at risk of having the same issue. By engaging in genetic counseling, you are helping yourself and your relatives!
An example: If your mother, aunt, and brother all have been diagnosed with gastric cancer, you should be getting upper endoscopies annually, starting 10 years before the earliest cancer diagnosis. So you take my advice and you meet with a genetic counselor. The genetic counselor says that she thinks the cancer in your family may be caused by a rare hereditary cancer syndrome called Hereditary Diffuse Gastric Cancer. She recommends genetic testing for the CDH1 gene, and explains that if you in fact had a mutation in that gene, she would recommend that you speak with a GI specialist about having a prophylactic gastrectomy (removal of the stomach) since screening for gastric cancer has not been proven effective at identifying cancer at an early and treatable stage. ‘What???’ you say. ‘Remove my stomach? That sounds crazy! And so extreme!’
Perhaps, but this is how you continue to live a healthy life without the burden of stomach cancer looming.
Because in the end, you have two choices:
- Run away from your family history and stick your head in the sand (not my favorite).
- Turn around, face your fears, and address your cancer risk. To risk being redundant, that may be in the form of (1) finding a primary doctor and telling him or her about your family history, (2) asking your doctor to manage your screening regimen, (3) stepping up your screening regimen to be more frequent so that if you do develop cancer, you can catch it at an early and treatable stage, or (4) discussing other risk reducing strategies with your doctor to determine what makes most sense for you in light of your family history.
You do not need to die from cancer just because you have a family history of cancer. Your cancer risk exists, whether you chose to acknowledge it or not. Ignoring it does not actually make it disappear. It just takes away your ability to take any proactive steps to maximize your health and the health of your family.
Passover is traditionally the holiday of history. In fact, it is a unique time which we are told to actually be historians. The whole point of the Seder is so that we tell over the story of how we and our forefathers were slaves in Egypt, and G-d took us out. The Seder is set up to be multigenerational in that sense. Everyone is involved, grandparents, parents, children, and everyone has their own role.
Perhaps you already see where I’m going with this. Use this opportunity, gathered around with your family, to discuss and share your family medical history! Similar to the Seder, everyone in your family has a role in this, especially those who are already considered the family’s medical history “historians”.
Usually there are one or two individuals in the family who know something about the family’s medical history, but everyone else is typically clueless. I see this on a daily basis when I meet with patients and ask them questions about their family histories. I can rapidly tell the difference between those “historians” who know what medical issues run in their families, and those whose answers consist largely of “I don’t know”.
I didn’t know much about my family medical history until I became a genetic counselor and asked my mother (our family’s medical historian) all of the pertinent questions. My sisters still don’t know a lot, and their answers at a doctor’s visit will likely consist of a lot of “I don’t know”s.
Family medical history is something we all should know! It is the best predictor of future medical issues, and can help your doctors direct your care appropriately.
Last Thanksgiving, Chani wrote a great blog post to remind people that family health history is one of the best tools that we have to assess genetic risks for our patients, and to encourage our readers to discuss this topic over the holidays. This Thanksgiving, I am thinking about this some more and I would like to add another element to this theme.
Recently, I have met with several families with mental health issues. Many of them are particularly worried about the stigma that this can have on the affected individual. But beyond that, I am finding that the siblings of those individuals are concerned about their “marriageability.” These siblings worry that they may not be desirable for fear of developing mental illness themselves and of passing on the mental health problem to the next generation.
It is important to note that all forms of mental illness are multifactorial. This means that there is some genetic component that can actually involve multiple genes, as well as some environmental or situational component to trigger its onset. This is why it is not surprising to see that mental illness will ‘run in a family,’ but that not everyone will be affected. So if a brother has mental illness, each of his siblings and his nieces and nephews will have a higher-than-average risk to develop the same or a related condition, but this is not definite.
Dr. Goldwaser (one of our fantastic genetics attendings) once said something very smart and sensitive that also has been touched on in another blog from our program and at some of our events. We all have something in our families—whether it is mental illness, predisposition to cancer, or more common conditions like diabetes or hypertension. And some of us don’t even realize we have things going on. But the fact is that we are all carriers of about 5-10 autosomal recessive diseases! So while some things may be more public and seem more apparent than others, others are less conspicuous. But they are still there. Nobody is exempt.
I am finding that mental health issues are particularly taboo. People are so scared to talk about this, and even more so, to get involved with families who are affected. This is not unreasonable—we all know which life challenges we think we can handle and which ones we cannot. But I want to urge you this Thanksgiving not only to be open about health history, but to be sensitive to the fact that if you dig deep enough, you will be sure to find something genetic in just about any family. Why should mental health issues be more disqualifying in the realm of marriage compatibility than any other disease?