Jewish tradition teaches that "if you save one life, it is as if you have saved an entire world."
It certainly mattered for Missy Stein.
"One person can make a difference," said Stein, a seven-year survivor of breast cancer and event co-chair with Nancy Selarnick of "The Power of One." This recent luncheon and fundraiser sponsored by the Sisterhood of Har Zion Temple aimed to do just that — save one life, educate, motivate and empower.
Co-sponsored by the Philadelphia Affiliate of Susan G. Komen for the Cure, the program featured a panel of medical experts who addressed a myriad of issues and breakthroughs in the field of breast cancer. Stein and Selarnick both lost their mothers to the disease; and each just so happens to be the mother of five.
Stein, 43, wife of Jay M. Stein, the Penn Valley congregation's senior rabbi, credits her former obstetrician/gynecologist for being the person who made a difference in her life.
"During a routine exam at 36, my doctor suggested that I have a baseline mammogram," she recalled. "I was diagnosed with breast cancer. It was in three quadrants of my left breast and three of my lymph nodes."
Stein underwent a bilateral mastectomy and reconstruction surgery, followed by chemotherapy. Surgery on her right breast was prophylactic: "It was that mammogram that ultimately saved my life."
"Through research, science and incredible care, my children still have their mother," said Rabbi Stein, a panelist who shared his perspective as spouse/caregiver, stressing the importance of emotional support.
Other panelists were gynecologist Mark Borowsky, breast surgeon Ari D. Brooks; oncologist Kevin R. Fox; radiologist Kathleen V. Greatrex; plastic surgeon Joseph M. Serletti; and Lori Singer White, Ph.D., geneticist.
Medical advances that were discussed included cutting-edge surgical techniques in breast reconstruction; a movement toward nipple preservation; specialized testing, enabling oncologists to reduce chemotherapy treatment by 50 percent in low risk patients; successful use of Herceptin for HER2/positive breast cancer; digital mammography; and genetic testing. (It was noted that magnetic resonance imaging and ultrasound are also used as diagnostic tools.)
Selarnick, 48, immediate past president of Sisterhood, called the event's theme relevant because over the past year, several Sisterhood members had died of breast cancer.
"Twenty years ago, I was pregnant with my first child when my mother died of breast cancer at 51," said Selarnick, who lived in fear, waiting for the medical community to discover a test that would change her outlook.
Three years ago, Selarnick tested positive for the BRCA 1 gene mutation, riveting her to undergo elective "free flap" surgery, encompassing a prophylactic bilateral mastectomy, hysterectomy and reconstruction of both breasts.
She described the 12-hour surgery, performed at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, as groundbreaking in that "fat from the abdomen is actually harvested during the procedure and reimplanted for breast reconstruction."
White, regional medical specialist with Myriad Genetic Laboratories, who also has the BRCA I gene mutation, explained that clinical genetic testing began in 1995: "In the general community, BRCA 1 and 2 mutations are found in 1 in 500 people; in the Jewish population, we see these mutations in 1 in 40 people," particularly those of Ashkenazi descent. "If a mutation is detected, it puts a woman at greater risk of developing hereditary breast and/or ovarian cancer."
"I was a second-year medical student when my mother died of breast cancer," recalled Greatrex, president of Lourdes Imaging Associates and chief of radiology and nuclear medicine at Our Lady of Lourdes Medical Center in Camden, N.J.
By the time her mother was diagnosed, the cancer had already spread. "My mother said to me, 'You have to do something about this; no one should suffer like this. You will find a way,' " said the physician, who ultimately did.
Digital mammography or imaging has proven highly effective in early detection, especially for women with dense breasts.
Elaine Grobman, executive director of the Philadelphia Affiliate of Susan G. Komen for the Cure, shared the discovery of the metastasis gene, which appears to be critical in the disease's spread.
Affirmed Grobman: "We are getting closer to the reality of a world without breast cancer for all women."