In 1996, 6-year old Akinyi Shapiro and her father buried Akinyi’s mother in a Jewish service in Bethesda, Maryland. Diagnosed with AIDS while pregnant, Awuor Ayodo was only expected to live to see her daughter’s 2nd birthday – if her baby was born healthy.
Brown University Hillel's Akinyi Shapiro.
As a preventive measure, newborn Akinyi received pediatric treatments of the drug AZT which, in the early weeks of 1990, had only recently been FDA approved. To the relief of her parents, Akinyi (and her father) never tested positive for HIV/AIDS.
Today she is a sophomore at Brown University, a health-education activist on campus and a Hillel leader. Her role as a women’s peer counselor in the Bronson House dormitory at Brown includes educating incoming freshmen about sexual health and empowerment.
“Students know me as a resource,” says Shapiro, who volunteers at a domestic violence shelter and works with a program called Peer HIV/AIDS Site-based Education (PHASE) at Rhode Island high schools. “Both on campus and off, I give women the tools they need to change their situations and make healthy choices.”
Shapiro is currently involved with “W” Week at Brown, a seven-day focus on women’s issues, appropriately scheduled during the month of October– National Breast Cancer Awareness Month. During this month, Hillels are joining activists nationwide to raise awareness and to encourage women to perform breast self-exams and schedule annual mammograms. For Ashkenazi Jewish women, who experience occurrences of the disease at a higher rate, there is additional advice.
“Being Jewish increases your odds of having altered BRCA genes [associated with breast and ovarian cancer],”explains Michelle Gilats of the Chicago Center for Jewish Genetic Diseases. “Therefore, if a significant family history exists, it is recommended that a woman receive genetic testing as early as possible.”
Television writer Jessica Queller made a radical decision after testing positive for the mutated BRCA gene. PHOTO CREDIT: Cara Buono.
In fact, one in 40 Ashkenazi Jews test positive for the BRCA mutation compared with one in 1,000 women in the general population.
Janna Green* is one in 40.
Her mother battled breast cancer at age 34 and today is healthy and approaching her 60th birthday. Both Green’s grandmothers were also cancer survivors. At age 24, she tested positive for the BRCA mutation in the summer of 2006, while attending law school in Washington, D.C.
“Waiting for the results was nerve-wracking, getting the results was upsetting,” recalls Green. “The scariest part is when [the genetic counselor] talks about preventive measures [like removing your ovaries and breasts].”
But as Gilats explains, testing positive for the BRCA mutation is not the same as a cancer diagnosis. The mutation only signifies an increased risk of breast and ovarian cancer. Gilats stresses the importance of both pre- and post-testing counseling for those Jewish women who decide to be screened.
Green received her results from a genetic counselor at New York University Medical Center. She is now a healthy 26-year-old law clerk in New York City and vigilant about self-exams and regular mammograms.
Her test results, family history and newfound awareness of the BRCA genes prompted Green to reach out to FORCE (Facing Our Risk of Cancer Empowered), a non-profit group dedicated to improving the lives of individuals and families affected by hereditary breast and ovarian cancer. FORCE provides support to women at risk for or battling BRCA-related cancers.
In 2001, Rochelle Shoretz, a former law clerk for Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, established a similar organization called Sharsheret. From the Hebrew word meaning “chain,” Sharsheret is a support group and educational resource for young Jewish women diagnosed with breast cancer.
Recently, Hillel at the University of Denver raised more than $700 for Sharsheret through ticket sales for the program Comedy for a Cure. At the University of Maryland Hillel, sophomore Rachel Straus and the sisters of Alpha Epsilon Phi are also raising money for Sharsheret through $10 manicures which will take place on campus Thursday, October 30.
Samantha Blum, a Hillel leader at the University of Illinois and sister of Sigma Delta Tau (SDT), recently organized a designer jean sale to raise money for the National Ovarian Cancer Coalition. Blum’s mother has been battling the disease for 10 years.
And even Jewish fraternity brothers are “going pink” for women’s causes this month. At the University of Michigan (UM), the brothers of Sigma Alpha Mu teamed with SDT and Hillel to host “Go Blue Think Pink,” a yoga marathon and dunk- tank fundraiser that benefitted the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation.
Arielle Jones, a junior at UM, told a campus reporter “there were three-year-old babies next to 20-year-old boys in pink T-shirts, both of them just so excited to do yoga … it gets people's attention. "
SIC Hillel professionals Isabel Gassman, Katie Wexler and Jamie Silverstein making strides against breast cancer.
Jewish Greeks at the University of Connecticut recently hosted a “Pink Shabbat” to show their support for Breast Cancer Awareness Month. And on Sunday, October 19, a team of Hillel professionals from the Schusterman International Center (SIC) walked as a team to raise money and awareness the American Cancer Society‘s annual fundraiser “Making Strides Against Cancer” in Washington, D.C.
“Breast cancer is an indiscriminate illness,” says Katie Wexler, senior associate at the SIC. “It doesn't care what your religion is, the color of your skin, or your economic status. But its prevalence among Jewish women makes it a cause close to my heart. With the Jewish new year beginning in October, it felt like an appropriate time to fight for a cure.”
Read more about 38-year old Jessica Queller's decision to have a double mastectomy as a preventive measure.
*not her real name