Poster campaign urges Jewish women to get cancer gene screening

Poster shown in synagogues
Basser Research Center

Many Jewish women attending their synagogue’s high holiday services this month may have seen posters plastered on bulletin boards or near the entrance doors warning them that they may be at increased risk of breast and ovarian cancer.

“Individuals of Ashkenazi Jewish ancestry have a 1 in 40 chance of carrying a BRCA gene mutation,” reads the poster. “This is at least a ten times greater probability than that of the general population.” The advice: Talk to experts at Basser Research Center for BRCA at Penn Medicine’s Abramson Cancer Center to understand your risk. The implied message: You may have a BRCA mutation and could be a good candidate for genetic testing.

Temple Beth Am in Framingham and Temple Ohabei Shalom in Brookline have these posters up on their walls, as do 1,500 other synagogues across the country.

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Dr. Susan Domchek, an oncologist, genetic researcher and executive director of the Basser Research Center, told me that the poster campaign’s mission is to simply increase awareness and get women to seek more information on whether they would qualify for genetic testing.

Many are already well aware of the gene mutation, especially after actress Angelina Jolie revealed that she was a BRCA-mutation carrier and had a prophylactic mastectomy to reduce her elevated risk of breast cancer.

The trouble I have with this campaign is that it leads Jewish women to believe that they likely need BRCA testing. Most don’t, and insurance tends to cover the $500 cost of the screening only if they have at least one first-degree relative—mother, sister, daughter—diagnosed with breast or ovarian cancer.

Domchek said the poster couldn’t include all these nuances but directs women to a website where more information can be found. Women need to click on yet another link to find out that they should only seek advice from a genetic counselor if they are of Eastern European Jewish descent and have a close family history of breast or ovarian cancer.

I think a single extra sentence on this poster may have gone a long way towards providing women with the full information so they don’t need to be scared unnecessarily into thinking that they need an expensive genetic test simply because of their ancestry.