In May, actress Angelina Jolie made the bold decision to publicly share her courageous, life-saving choice to have a preventative double mastectomy. Having watched her mother die of cancer at the age of 56, Jolie was counseled to be tested, learned she is a carrier of a BRCA 1 gene mutation, and was told that there was an 87 percent chance she would develop breast cancer and a 50 percent chance she would develop ovarian cancer.
Angelina Jolie’s decision was not an easy one. But, as she said: “I do not feel any less of a woman. I feel empowered that I made a strong choice that in no way diminishes my femininity.”
Jolie’s column in The New York Times has brought renewed understanding to all of us who have breast cancer in our families and should seek medical counsel about whether to be tested. Her column may even lift a degree of fear and mystery around cancer, and around this particular option that some people have to preserve their lives.
How relevant BRCA gene testing and preventative surgery technologies are for our community! An astonishing one in 40 Ashkenazi Jews — men and women — carries a BRCA 1 or 2 gene mutation. That means 1 in 40 Ashkenazi Jews can find out that they have up to an 80 percent chance of developing breast or ovarian cancer, and these genes affect other cancers as well. And so, one in 40 Ashkenazi Jews can make the difficult but effective choice to pursue the highest of Jewish values — pikuach nefesh, to save a life — with genetic testing, rigorous screening and potentially life-saving preventative surgery.
Next month, we have an important opportunity to reach the Jewish community on this issue in a powerful way. In a partnership with the medical leaders of this field, the Basser Research Center of Penn Medicine’s Abramson Cancer Center, congregations throughout the region and the nation have launched an awareness campaign.
With posters in synagogue restrooms across the country during the High Holidays, and with major symposiums in Philadelphia, New York, Los Angeles and Minneapolis, the Basser Research Center is enabling the Jewish community to save lives.
Clearly, genetic testing and preventative surgery are difficult to talk about and to imagine for ourselves. On Oct. 6 at Congregation Rodeph Shalom, the Basser Research Center’s director, Dr. Susan Domchek, will lead the local symposium, which is aimed at demystifying this important life-saving medical choice and making medical resources accessible.
Congregations throughout the region, along with all individuals, are invited to attend.
It may be empowering to have this technology and this choice, but we are not exactly jumping for joy for our hopes and dreams for cancer research go beyond mastectomies. We don’t want preventative surgery. We want to cure cancer. And to eradicate cancer.
The Book of Deuteronomy describes: “These are the words that Moses addressed to all Israel on the other side of the Jordan.” B’ever haYardeyn. On the other side of the Jordan. The entire Book of Deuteronomy takes place on the other side of the Jordan, in Moab. The Torah has followed our people from the land of Canaan, to the slavery of Egypt, and soon we will reach the promised land.
Still, even though we have not yet reached the promised land, we are also not where we used to be, in Egypt — a place of slavery. A place without any taste of freedom. A place without hope.
We are not yet where we want to be, at the end of the story of this journey. But this moment in cancer research and the opportunity it brings is one of tremendous progress. This life-changing point of the journey is one that we embrace in this moment.
May we gain understanding and insight into this Moab, and may we move forward in our journey toward the promised land.
Rabbi Jill L. Maderer, a religious leader of Congregation Rodeph Shalom in Center City Philadelphia, will welcome the symposium at her synagogue on Oct. 6, 10:30 a.m. For more information and to register go to: www.lbbc.org/  events or call 610-645-4567.