portrait of a middle-age blonde woman in a pink jacket
Pamela Munster, co-leader of the Center for BRCA Research (Photo/Elizabeth Fall)

Learn more about BRCA gene, join a study — or do both

Oncologist Pamela Munster wants Jews to know something about cancer risk.

“In Ashkenazi Jews, the risk for BRCA mutation is almost 1 in 50,” she said, referring to a gene mutation that dramatically increases the likelihood of certain cancers. “That means a lot of people could have this mutation.”

Munster is co-leader of UCSF’s Center for BRCA Research, part of the Helen Diller Family Comprehensive Cancer Center, and will be speaking at two upcoming events at Jewish venues.

BRCA is a type of gene that everyone has, but some people have mutations in those genes that are estimated to increase the risk of breast cancer by 60 to 80 percent and ovarian cancer by 20 to 40 percent. And certain groups — including Ashkenazi Jews — are more likely to have the mutation than others.

“It doesn’t mean you have cancer,” Munster said. “It means you’re at risk for cancer.”

Munster, who is researching how to detect and treat cancers caused by BRCA mutations, will be spreading her message at the annual Pink Power Day at the Peninsula JCC in Foster City on Oct. 27, and as part of a panel at Congregation Rodef Sholom in San Rafael on Nov. 13. She uses public appearances to disseminate facts about BRCA mutations, urge people to get tested and clear up myths and misconceptions.

One of those misconceptions is that BRCA mutations affect only women.

“It’s perceived as a ‘breast cancer’ gene,” she said, but men are at risk as well. “It’s just much harder to get men into health care.”

Ashkenazi men with the mutation are not only at a much higher risk for prostate and pancreatic cancer, they also have an increased risk of breast cancer. So they need to get tested too, Munster said, and not only for their own health — men can pass the gene down to their children just as women can.

“Hopefully this is now dispelled, that [BRCA] genes come through the mother.”

Nor is it just Jews who need to pay attention. Munster, who is not Jewish, has the mutation herself — something she found out nearly 15 years into her career as a cancer researcher.

“I was pretty much caught completely off guard,” she said.

That’s why testing is key. And so is research.

UCSF is currently looking to enroll a total of 500 Ashkenazi Jews in a study about the gene mutation. In all, 30 genes will be analyzed, including BRCA1 and BRCA2, and genetic counseling support will be available with every test.

In Ashkenazi Jews, the risk for BRCA mutation is almost 1 in 50.

More than half of the study slots are still open, according to Sydney Pietrzak, program manager at the Center for BRCA Research. One need not have cancer diagnoses in their immediate family to participate.

UCSF staff will be on hand at the upcoming events at the Peninsula JCC and Rodef Sholom to enroll people (a saliva sample is required). Information is also available on the study website or by calling (415) 885-7604.

Julie Mak, a genetic counselor at the Diller Cancer Center, knows that many people fear getting tested, and says that’s understandable.

“People get really nervous, too, when they start talking about this,” she said.

But she points out that a 1-in-50 or 1-in-40 chance for Ashkenazi Jews (the statistics vary according to studies) means many people do not have the mutation. And if they do, it’s better to have the information earlier rather than later.

Munster said a diagnosis of a BRCA mutation has ramifications both for prevention and treatment. Currently, women over 50 are advised to get annual mammograms. But “if you have BRCA2, that’s wrong,” Munster said. “You should be screened 25 and up.”

On the other hand, women without the mutation may not even need annual mammograms.

It changes how a cancer is treated, too. Not all patients who have received a cancer diagnosis have had a genetic test — but they should, Munster said.

“It affects treatment, it affects the surgical approach, it affects prevention,” she said. “It’s a significant difference.”

That’s why Munster continues to be a sought-after speaker for educational events about BRCA mutations. Although there’s still not enough testing, Munster said, she has seen growing awareness of BRCA mutations.

“I think in the last three to four years there’s a pretty significant uptake in this,” she said. “But still not enough.”

Pink Power Day

9 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 27 at Peninsula JCC, 800 Foster City Blvd., Foster City. Free. Cancer prevention speakers 12 to 1:30 p.m.

BRCA Awareness Panel

6:30 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 13 at Congregation Rodef Sholom, 170 N. San Pedro Road, San Rafael. Free.

Maya Mirsky
Maya Mirsky

Maya Mirsky is a J. Staff Writer based in Oakland.