Wendy Carriere

Wendy Carriere

As we turned the corner into 2020, I was hopeful for what was to come. 

We were finishing up the first year of our hereditary cancer program. It was in the works for seven years, and was also a dream of our dear departed founder, Sherman Minkoff. The feedback we received from the community was constructive and contributed to making it better and more relevant. 

Our 15-year-old prenatal program was progressing, averaging a screening a day — meaning that young couples were hopeful for the future and intending to bring new life into the world. 

In February, we held our eighth annual educational and fundraising event. We had record attendance and raised funds that would help provide counseling and screening for Jewish Arizonans into 2021. 

In a word, things were good. As the weather warmed up in Arizona, the news shifted dramatically to COVID-19 and the general shutdown of the nation.

We were one of the lucky organizations. We were able to continue with a few exceptions. I moved our office to my home, and the center briefly shut down testing for 60 days for both programs. 

Thankfully we were able to continue our free genetic counseling without interruption. And since we didn’t want to distract from other organizations dealing directly with the Jewish community in peril — providing food and shelter — we decided not to fundraise. But we still wanted to ensure we were providing relevant health care information to our community and help them make informed decisions.

In July, we launched our first online hereditary cancer educational programming with over 2,000 views worldwide to date. We plan to follow up with another webinar focusing specifically on the importance of prenatal genetic screening. 

While it’s always a good idea to pay attention to your breast health we encourage you to use this month’s focus on breast cancer to be extra vigilant. Pay attention to any changes in your breasts, perform monthly breast self-exams and report any changes to your doctor.  

If you have a strong family history of breast cancer on either your mother’s or your father’s side, one or more cases of breast cancer in close blood relatives — especially before age 50 — and/or other cancers such as ovarian and prostate cancer in your family, share this information with your doctor for guidance.

One in 40 Ashkenazi Jews — both men and women — carries a BRCA gene mutation, more than 10 times the rate of the general population, making Jewish families significantly more susceptible to hereditary breast cancer and ovarian cancer. Our hereditary cancer program is available to both Ashkenazi Jewish men and women and was developed to help identify individuals who have an Ashkenazi Jewish founder mutation in the BRCA 1 or BRCA 2 gene. 

Having a founder mutation in either of these genes places Ashkenazi Jewish men and women at an increased risk for breast, ovarian, prostate, pancreatic and other cancers. Without a personal or family history of cancer, health insurance companies will not cover the cost of BRCA 1 and BRCA 2 genetic testing. This program is designed to provide access to genetic testing for individuals who would not qualify for coverage of genetic testing through their health insurance plan, but who are still at risk to have a BRCA 1 or BRCA 2 founder mutation. 

For those with a personal history of cancer, an individual may not have access to the proper resources to get counseled or tested. Minkoff will help to ensure proper counseling and testing for those that need it, and in many cases it is covered by insurance. In those cases where testing is not covered, we will subsidize the cost. 

Our advisory committee is made up of medical volunteer professionals including geneticists, oncologists, pediatricians, radiologist and genetic counselors to help shape and guide our programs. 

October serves as a reminder to take your breast health seriously. Our mission is to help you get answers to serious questions. JN

Wendy Carriere is the executive director of the Minkoff Center for Jewish Genetics, which provides awareness, knowledge and screening to empower the Jewish community to make informed decisions regarding genetic diseases.

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