Kathy Pattak did not have ovarian or breast cancer. Nevertheless, in 1999, she opted to have a hysterectomy, and in 2005, she underwent a prophylactic double mastectomy, as well.
Pattak chose to have the procedures as preventative measures because genetic testing indicated she had an 87 percent chance of developing breast cancer, and a 25 percent chance of developing ovarian cancer, if she did not have the surgeries.
“I have no regrets,” said the former physical education teacher from the Mt. Lebanon Area School Sistrict. “The key thing is you need to be proactive. You need to get the [genetic] testing. Then there are things you can do.”
Pattak will be one of the featured speakers this Sunday, Dec. 11, at Rodef Shalom Congregation’s Jewish Family Concerns Series. The program, entitled “Through the Lens of Shmirat HaGuf (Taking Care of the Body): What You Need to Know about Jewish Genetic Diseases, ” begins at 10 a.m., and is open to the public.
The program aims to educate its audience on the importance of Jewish genetic testing, focusing on screening for BRCA 1 and BRCA 2 gene mutations, which are predictors for breast and ovarian cancer, and which are prevalent among Ashkenazi Jews.
“About one person in every 500 to 800 who are not Jewish have the mutation, compared to one out of every 40 for Ashkenazi Jews,” according to Megan Marshall, a genetic counselor who will be speaking Sunday at the program.
While women in the general population have about an 8 percent chance of developing breast cancer by age 70, the risk of developing breast cancer for a woman with a BRCA gene mutation is about 10 times as high.
Those odds were enough to convince Pattak to have the surgeries, thus reducing her risk of developing breast and ovarian cancer by about 95 percent.
Ashkenazi women, with family histories of breast or ovarian cancer, should consider getting tested for the BRCA gene mutation, Pattak said, but making such a decision is not always easy.
One has to be prepared to accept the results.
Pattak had a strong family history of both cancers. Her mother, aunt and grandmother all had breast cancer, and her mother and aunt also had ovarian cancer. Pattak’s sister, after getting tested, found she had the BRCA mutation, and tried to convince Pattak to get tested as well.
“I didn’t want to at first, because I didn’t know what I would do with the results,” Pattak said. “My sister kept telling me to stop being an ostrich, putting my head in the sand.”
It wasn’t until 1998, when Pattak heard of a study at the University of Pittsburgh that focused on the mental and emotional process of being tested and dealing with the results, that she decided to do what she had been avoiding.
“Once I signed up for the study, I decided to have the testing done,” she said. “I didn’t make the decision to be tested until I was ready to accept the results, assuming they would be positive.”
Pattak did, in fact, test positive for the BRCA gene mutation, and in 1999, had a hysterectomy.
“It was easier to decide to have the hysterectomy than the mastectomy because it was internal,” she said.
But in the early 2000s, her gynecologist suggested she speak to a breast surgeon to discuss the possibility of a mastectomy as well. Pattak also spoke to a plastic surgeon about reconstruction.
“Once I knew what was going to happen, and what was involved, I decided to go ahead and have the surgery,” she said.
“This is something more and more Jewish families need to know about,” Pattak said. “They need to know about the risks, and that with this you can be proactive. There is something you can do to reduce your risks of breast or ovarian cancer.”
Sheila Solomon, one of the genetic counselors scheduled to speak at Sunday’s program, called genetic testing “a very important issue in the Jewish community.”
Nevertheless, she noticed while working with Marshall at Allegheny General Hospital several years ago that few Jewish patients were opting for it.
“We wondered why those in the Jewish community were not coming in for testing for hereditary cancers,” she said. “We wanted to become informed on what are the barriers, and what are the best methods to get the information for the community.”
“We don’t see the correct percentage of Jews coming in for genetic counseling,” Marshall said.
Ashkenazi ancestry by itself does not necessarily indicate a need for genetic testing, according to Marshall. Age and family history are also factors.
“Having this information is really important,” said Rabbi Amy Hertz of Rodef Shalom Congregation, who will also be speaking at Sunday’s program. “How we take care of our bodies is a Jewish value.”
Other speakers at the Sunday program include Rachel Pearlman, a graduate student in genetic counseling, and Barbara and Jay Rogal, whose daughter lives with Gaucher, another genetic disease prevalent among Ashkenazi Jews.
The genetics event is co-sponsored by Allegheny General Hospital, University of Pittsburgh, Rodef Shalom Brotherhood, and Rodef Shalom Sisterhood.
(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)