Talking with A cancer activist with her dial at zero

Name: Rose Barlow
Age: 54
City: San Rafael
Position: Executive director, Zero Breast Cancer


J.: Zero Breast Cancer was launched in Marin in 1995. What sets it apart?

Rose Barlow: It’s a little different from other breast cancer organizations. From the get-go we focused on the environmental causes and risk factors. We’ve been more committed to the idea of prevention than screening and treatment.

Rose Barlow

And how does one prevent breast cancer?

Ten percent of breast cancers are genetic, so prevention has to do with knowing family history and talking to your doctor. Of the next 30 to 40 percent, we know most of the major risk factors, and we educate people as to what they are. Age and being a woman are two you can’t do anything about. The modifiable risk factors have to do with wellness: not smoking, limiting alcohol intake, watching your weight. Top-notch nutrition and exercise are very protective. Limiting toxic chemical exposure, avoiding plastic food containers, particularly heating them in microwaves. Hormone replacement therapy post-menopause has been shown to be a significant risk.

What about the rest of the cases, the other 50 percent?

We don’t know. They’re just random acts of genetic malfunction. That’s why there is much research to do. Zero Breast Cancer is an intermediary between the community and researchers. As they get results, we can take those back into the community.

Can you give an example of the work Zero Breast Cancer does?

One of our projects is the CYGNET Study, in partnership with Kaiser Permanente in Oakland. It’s a longitudinal study of a cohort of girls starting from pre-puberty, and following them through puberty to gather data about their environment, lifestyles and any biomarkers from physiological samples of chemical exposure. This is data that can then be used for research.

Incidents of breast cancer are so common within the Jewish community that some call it a Jewish genetic disease.

Ashkenazi Jews are the most extensively affected and widely studied community that has the BRCA1 gene mutation [for early onset breast cancer]. The fundamental mechanism is that tumor suppressor portions of those genes have been deleted at some point. It’s become an inheritable condition. If you don’t have that tumor suppression gene, breast and tumor risk increases significantly.

This is personal for you, isn’t it?

I’ve tested positive for the BRCA1 mutation. I have not had the disease, but I lost my mom and aunt to ovarian cancer when they were younger than I am. Even in those days it alerted us to an extremely strong family history, so I’ve had close monitoring. At 38 I prophylactically removed my ovaries. I have an MRI and a mammogram every year and physical exams with a breast oncologist.

Is there any good news to report in the fight against cancer?

In California in particular, all cancer rates are down. Twenty-three percent of all cancer survivors in this country are breast cancer survivors. There’s been a lot of success in figuring out how to catch it early and treat it effectively. Progress is slow but steady.

Before joining ZBC in March, you did a lot of work in the Jewish community.

I grew up in Johannesburg [South Africa] in a very strongly Zionistic home. We lived in England and Scotland for eight years, and have been in Marin for 19 years. We have two daughters, Rachel and Hannah. I served on the board of Brandeis Hillel Day School for eight years, the board of BJE and as an advancement associate [fundraiser] for the Jewish Community Federation.

What’s keeping you busy right now?

The Dipsea Hike, our big annual fundraiser, is coming up on Sept. 26. We partner with the Tamalpa Runners on the event, which will raise money for a wellness and leadership program for high school students. People can find out more at

“Talking with …”
focuses on local Jews who are doing things we find interesting. Send suggestions to [email protected].

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.