Throughout our cancer screening quiz, you’ll see multiple references to Ashkenazi Jewish ancestry. But what does being of Eastern European Jewish descent mean? And why does having Ashkenazi Jewish genetics increase your risk of cancer risk so substantially?
Besides lifestyle risk factors like smoking, alcohol, weight, exercise and diet, one of the strongest risk factors for cancer is family history. Those of Ashkenazi Jewish heritage have a 1 in 40 chance of testing positive for a BRCA gene mutation, making them more susceptible to a number of cancers.
Ashkenazi Jewish Origins
Ashkenazi Jews, also called Ashkenazim, comprise the majority of the world’s Jewish population, between 75 and 80 percent. The country with the largest group is the United States, with 5-6 million Ashkenazi, many of them our neighbors here in Queens communities.
Ashkenazi Jews are alternatively referred to as “having Eastern European descent” differentiating them from Sephardic Jews, who have Iberian (Hispanic) origins, and Mizrahi Jews, who have Middle Eastern ancestors.
The BRCA Gene in Jewish People
The BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes are colloquially known together as the “breast cancer gene” or BRCA, with the “BR” short for breast and “CA” for cancer. Everyone has the BRCA genes, but when you have a mutation of your genes, this is called being “BRCA-positive.”
Despite its name, anyone can have a mutated BRCA gene, even men. Those with a BRCA-positive parent have a 50% chance of inheriting it regardless of sex or family cancer history. Those with family history of breast cancer or ovarian cancer are more likely to be BRCA-positive. And Ashkenazi Jewish people, of all ethnic groups, have one of the highest likelihoods of carrying the gene—a 2.5% chance—earning the gene the alternate nickname of the “Jewish breast cancer gene.”
The BRCA Gene & Cancer
True to its nickname, the gene heavily affects breast cancer rates. Average women have a 12% chance of being diagnosed with breast cancer during their lifetime, an already high rate. BRCA-positive women, on the other hand, have an astounding 70% chance of being diagnosed, leading many to decide preventative mastectomies are the best avenue for avoiding diagnosis.
BRCA-positive women are also more likely:
- to be diagnosed with breast cancer at an earlier age
- to have cancer in both breasts
- to be diagnosed with the harder-to-treat triple-negative breast cancer
Being BRCA-positive significantly increases the chance of being diagnosed with a number of other cancers, too, including:
- Ovarian cancer – Women with the mutated BRCA gene have an 11-44% chance of developing ovarian cancer, whereas the average woman has only a 1.2% chance.
- Pancreatic cancer – BRCA mutations are found in 5-10% of those diagnosed with inherited pancreatic ductal adenocarcinoma, a type of pancreatic cancer comprising 90% of all diagnoses.
- Colorectal cancer – Women under 50 with the BRCA1 mutation (though not BRCA2) are incredibly five times as likely to be diagnosed with colorectal cancer.
- Prostate cancer – BRCA-positive men are at higher risk for prostate cancer, as well as male breast cancer.
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What This Means
Being aware of your risk factors can make a big difference in your cancer odds. Remember to ask your family where their Jewish heritage comes from. Knowing your family origins can help you make smart decisions about reducing risk even further. Consider:
- BRCA gene testing if you are of Ashkenazi descent or have a family history of breast or ovarian cancer. Studies have shown that knowing genetic test results can actually decrease stress.
- Keeping up-to-date on all your cancer screenings, especially mammograms and colorectal cancer screenings.
- Signing up for our free cancer screening reminders.
- Getting tested for the BRCA gene mutation if you are currently undergoing breast cancer treatment. Knowing the source of the cancer will improve treatment odds.
- Educating yourself about all the risk factors for breast cancer and ovarian cancer. If you have others, in addition to your family background, you should talk to your doctor about a more proactive cancer screening strategy.
- Reduce your controllable risk factors for cancer by improving your exercise and diet habits, losing weight, and quitting alcohol and smoking. Not only do these reduce cancer risk, but they improve your overall health and reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease and diabetes, just to name a few conditions.
- Jewish Women and BRCA Gene Mutations, Centers For Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)
- Ashkenazi Jews, National Cancer Institute
- BRCA1 and BRCA2 mutations and the risk for colorectal cancer, Clinical Genetics, 2014
- Pancreatic Cancer Types, Johns Hopkins Medicine
- BRCA-mutant pancreatic ductal adenocarcinoma, British Journal of Cancer, 2021