Wharton grad raises breast cancer awareness
Ellen Perl hopes to enlighten Jewish women on their risks for a breast cancer gene
September 4, 2013, 3:03 pm · Updated September 4, 2013, 10:34 pm·
A marketer, a rabbi and a doctor have joined forces for breast cancer awareness.
The Basser Research Center for BRCA at University of Pennsylvania’s Health System has teamed up with Ellen Perl, a 1983 Wharton graduate, to spread awareness about the genetic risks for breast cancer in certain groups of Jewish women in 1500 synagogues across the country.
Individuals of Eastern European Jewish ancestry have a one in 40 chance of carrying a BRCA gene mutation, which is ten times greater probability than that of the general population.
Beginning during Rosh Hashana, the Jewish new year that started Wednesday night, synagogues across the country are featuring posters teaching Jewish women the facts about breast cancer and about genetic testing.
The idea for this outreach campaign began after Perl’s own experience with breast cancer. “My mom had died six months before I was diagnosed and no one told me [then] to get genetic counseling,” Perl said. “And no one told me to do so before my surgeries.”
After her struggle with cancer, she felt the need to give back and increase awareness about the BRCA gene mutation, which is most common among Jewish women of Ashkenazi, or Eastern European, descent. “I thought to myself maybe I can increase awareness among the Jewish community [about] the fact that we have staggeringly high risk of carrying this mutation,“ said Perl.
Perl began the campaign in a Temple Israel synagogue in Minnesota with the help of Rabbi Marcia Zimmerman. When she heard about the opening of the Basser Research Center, she realized they might have found an organization to help to get her awareness campaign off the ground.
It wasn’t until Perl began working in April with Penn professor Susan Domchek, who is also executive director at the Basser Research Center, that she realized she could coordinate a nationwide program.
The hope is to make more people aware of the genetic implications of the BRCA gene mutation and how to seek testing and proper counseling.
“I thought that most Jewish women knew about [the BRCA gene mutation], there is a lot of discussion about it in the Jewish community, “ Domchek said. “However, we did some focus groups and it was clear that a lot of women don’t know about them nor that these gene mutations can be carried by men and passed down.”
Synagogues across the country are distributing posters in time for the Jewish holidays in September.
“During the holidays we have the most people in the building,” said Rabbi Jill Maderer, associate rabbi at Congregation Rodeph Shalom in Philadelphia. “We are hanging these posters in the restroom as a way to bring awareness to all people coming into the building.”
This poster project is just the beginning for breast cancer outreach at the Basser Research Center.
“This is our first step, our first foray and our goal is to get feedback into what is working and not working, adjust the campaign and continue on,” said Domchek.“We’re not going to every synagogue, we want feedback about how many posters are actually up. We have a ‘boots on the ground’ campaign with organizations out in the communities to get a local face on this.”
The hope for the project is expansion and further outreach. Perl said there are four major “amplification” events planned in large cities for February that will invite geneticists, doctors, BRCA positive patients and others to speak about their experiences.
“I think it’s going to be one of the largest public health campaigns ever. From our grassroots campaign to all this,” said Perl.