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Testimonials

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Sandro Rosell
FC Barcelona President
Tuesday, October 24, 2017

As if Jews don’t have enough to worry about.

Geopolitical threats to the Jewish people may wax and wane, but there’s another lethal danger particular to the Jewish people that shows no signs of disappearing anytime soon: cancer.

Specifically, Jews are at elevated risk for three types of the disease: melanoma, breast cancer and ovarian cancer. The perils are particularly acute for Jewish women.

The higher prevalence of these illnesses isn’t spread evenly among all Jews. The genetic mutations that result in higher incidence of cancer are concentrated among Ashkenazim — Jews of European descent.

“Ashkenazim are a more homogenous population from a genetic point of view, whereas the Sephardim are much more diverse,” said Dr. Ephrat Levy-Lahad, director of the Medical Genetics Institute at Shaare Zedek Medical Center in Jerusalem.

But there is some hope. Susceptible populations can take certain precautions to reduce their risks. Recent medical advances have made early detection easier, significantly lowering the fatality rates from some cancers. Cheaper genetic testing is making it much easier for researchers to discover the risk factors associated with certain cancers. And scientists are working on new approaches to fight these pernicious diseases – especially in Israel, where Ashkenazi Jews make up a larger proportion of the population than in any other country.

Understanding risk factors and learning about preventative measures are key to improving cancer survival rates. Here’s what you need to know.

Melanoma

Melanoma is the deadliest type of skin cancer, representing some 80 percent of skin cancer deaths, and U.S. melanoma rates are on the rise. It’s also one of the most common forms of cancer in younger people, especially among women.

Just a decade ago, Israel had the second-highest rate of skin cancer in the world, behind Australia. One reason is that Israel has a lot of sun. Some credit better education about the dangers of sun exposure for helping reduce Israel’s per capita skin cancer rate, now 18th in the world.

But the sun isn’t the whole story. Jews in Israel have a higher incidence of melanoma than the country’s Arab, non-Jewish citizens.

What makes Jews more likely to get skin cancer than others?

It’s a combination of genetics and behavior, according to Dr. Harriet Kluger, a cancer researcher at Yale University. On the genetics side, Ashkenazi Jews — who comprise about half of Israel’s Jewish population — are significantly more likely to have the BRCA-2 genetic mutation that some studies have linked to higher rates of melanoma.

The other factor, Israel’s abundant sunshine, exacerbates the problems for sun-sensitive Jews of European origin. That’s why Arabs and Israeli Orthodox Jews, whose more conservative dress leaves less skin exposed than does typical secular attire, have a lower incidence of the cancer.

“There are epidemiological studies from Israel showing that secular Jews have more melanoma than Orthodox Jews,” Kluger said.

So what’s to be done?

“Other than staying out of the sun, people should get their skin screened once a year,” Kluger said. “In Australia, getting your skin screened is part of the culture, like getting your teeth cleaned in America.”

You can spot worrisome moles on your own using an alphabetic mnemonic device for letters A-F: See a doctor if you spot moles that exhibit Asymmetry, Border irregularities, dark or multiple Colors, have a large Diameter, are Evolving (e.g. changing), or are just plain Funny looking. Light-skinned people and redheads should be most vigilant, as well as those who live in sunny locales like California, Florida or the Rocky Mountain states.

If you insist on being in the sun, sunscreen can help mitigate the risk, but only up to a point.

“It decreases the chances of getting melanoma, but it doesn’t eliminate the chances,” Kluger warned.

As with other cancers, early detection can dramatically increase survival rates.

In the meantime, scientists in Israel – a world leader in melanoma research – hold high hopes for immunotherapy, which corrals the body’s immune mechanisms to attack or disable cancer. At Bar-Ilan University, Dr. Cyrille Cohen is using a research grant from the Israel Cancer Research Fund to implant human melanoma cells in mice to study whether human white blood cells can be genetically modified to act as a “switch” that turns on the human immune system’s cancer‐fighting properties.

 By: Niv Elis
(Israel Cancer Research Fund)

(To Be Continued Next Week)