Dina Gluck, 35, learned she was a carrier of the BRCA gene mutation, the gene mutation linked to breast cancer, by chance. Although she does not have an extensive history of breast cancer among the females in her family, her doctor wanted to perform the test. “My biggest risk is that I am Jewish,” says Gluck. In fact, Gluck’s test was positive and additional testing confirmed it was her father who is the parent carrier. She also encouraged her three siblings to be tested and in fact, they all have the BRCA gene mutation.
According to a recent study by BMJ Oncology, global cancer rates in people aged 50 and under have risen by approximately 79% in the last 20 years. And yet as Gluck says, most women her age have never been tested for cancer. “Ob/gyns don’t test during pregnancy, which is when they generally do genetic testing,” she says.
Ashkenazi Jews have an even higher risk, about one in 40, compared with 1 in 400 in the general population. “Breast cancer is not rare in young women,” says Gluck, “You have to know your risk. Every Jewish woman should be tested.”
When faced with the news that she is positive for the BRCA gene mutation, a woman must decide a path forward. “I was so unprepared when I found out,” says Gluck, who ultimately decided to undergo a double mastectomy, and a possible removal of her fallopian tubes. “I wanted to take action before I was on the back end with a cancer diagnosis,” she says. She sought out support from an organization called Sharsheret, that provides a full range of services and resources for people who have been diagnosed with breast and ovarian cancer.
Melissa Rosen is the director of training and education at Sharsheret. She says the organization is unique from other cancer support agencies because of its unique spiritual approach. “We are a proud Jewish organization that provides culturally meaningful resources.” Sharsheret does not provide formal religious or medical guidance, but rather aims to connect someone recently diagnosed or in treatment with someone who has experienced a similar cancer journey. Sharsheret is the Hebrew word for chain, and peer counselors are called “links.” “We connect someone to a link based on diagnosis, stage of life, and relationship to Judaism,” says Rosen, “We have a peer support network that is 20,000 women strong.”
The cultural aspects of Sharsheret’s support resources are part of what distinguishes them from other cancer support groups. Rosen says, “The High Holidays, for example, can be different for so many reasons. From the practical, like not someone not having enough energy, to the spiritual prayers dealing with ‘who shall live and who shall die.’” Gluck says, “It was so important to me to find someone with the same cultural understanding.”
Education is another pillar of the services Sharsheret provides. “Training health care providers to offer culturally appropriate care affects outcomes,” says Rosen, who also educates clergy, social workers, and other treatment providers. In Nashville, referrals often come from Jewish Family Service of Middle Tennessee (JFS). According to Pam Kelner, executive director of JFS, the agency receives over 500 calls every year for a variety of assistance. “When someone is diagnosed with breast or ovarian cancer, they usually have a health care team, but need help navigating the social and emotional aspects,” she says, “And it is so important to know your genetics. We want to help empower women.”
To further the mission of empowerment, the Jewish Federation of Greater Nashville is partnering with JFS to bring awareness to importance of genetic testing and the options available to women who find out they have the BRCA gene mutation. On November 5th, as part of the Federation’s Women’s Philanthropy program, Rosen from Sharsheret will speak, along with a panel discussion where participants will hear from doctors and healthcare specialists. The event is being co-chaired by Gluck and Felice Apolinsky, a JFS board member.
Apolinsky is also the retired founding clinical program director of Gilda’s Club of Middle Tennessee. She says she witnessed firsthand the importance of health empowerment. “I believe the more informed you are the better equipped you become to make decisions that are best for you. Being educated about your health also helps foster a partnership with your medical team, especially in crucial decision-making moments. An additional benefit of feeling informed, and being an active partner in decision-making, is that it often results in a chaotic medical situation feeling much more controlled.”
This event is the first women’s philanthropy event of the Federation’s programming year. But for Gluck and Apolinsky, philanthropy is a familiar concept. “I’ve been giving back to BBYO for years,” says Gluck, “This is the first time I a passionate about the intersection of philanthropy and health.” Once she is further down the road in her recovery, Gluck hopes to become a Sharsheret peer counselor. And Apolinsky says both she and her husband have a core belief in the power of giving back. “It is something our parents modeled for us regardless of their financial means, whether helping one individual or the collective, it all makes a difference. Small acts of kindness can be as important, and sometimes even more-so, than writing a large check. We volunteer our time and give financially to organizations, and causes, that improve lives.”
Invitations to The Jewish Federation’s women’s philanthropy event will be arriving soon. For more information, contact Barbara Schwarcz at firstname.lastname@example.org.