Should I Tell My Doctor I’m Jewish? Yes, and Here’s Why.

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Should I Tell My Doctor I’m Jewish? Yes, and Here’s Why.

BRCA = Short for BReast CAncer gene

The Jewish spaces in our lives are different for everyone. The doctor’s office probably doesn’t come to mind as a Jewish space for most people – but it should. Individuals of Jewish descent have higher risks for some genetic disorders and hereditary cancers so it’s important for everyone with Jewish heritage to share that information with their healthcare providers. Yes – men, too! 

Read on to understand how Jewish ancestry is connected to health – and how your doctor and community resources can help you navigate these topics. 

The Norton & Elaine Sarnoff Center for Jewish Genetics is one such community resource. Through July 15, the Sarnoff Center is conducting a survey to gain insights into experiences of those in our community related to BRCA testing, counseling, and care. 


BRCA 101: Jews and Cancer

One in 40 Ashkenazi Jews carries a BRCA mutation, linked to increased risk of breast cancer in women and men, ovarian cancer, prostate cancer, pancreatic cancer and melanoma.  Everyone has the BRCA (short for BReast CAncer) gene, which is designed to keep cell growth in check. But mutations in the gene – which disrupt its function – occur about 10 times more frequently among Jews than in the general population. As a result, the Jewish community faces unique challenges when it comes it comes to hereditary cancers. The Norton & Elaine Sarnoff Center for Jewish Genetics works to address these challenges through education and access to a genetic counselor who can provide guidance to those seeking more information. Results from their current survey will inform additional future programs and resources. 

Is Tay-Sachs Still a Concern for the Jewish Community?

In short, yes. In addition to Tay-Sachs, there are at least 18 other serious disorders linked to Ashkenazi Jews and additional conditions linked to Sephardi Jews. Unlike BRCA mutations, these Jewish genetic disorders are inherited in an autosomal recessive pattern. While the number of Jewish babies born with Tay-Sachs disease has decreased dramatically since community screenings started in the 1970s, the carrier frequency remains the same. 

Carriers typically do not develop the disease but can pass it to their children if their partner also carries the same condition. When it comes time to plan for a family, carrier screening plays an important role. Make sure your doctor knows if you or partner have any Jewish ancestry so they can order the most appropriate test. The Sarnoff Center also offers an affordable, accessible screening program.

Not All Genetic Tests Are Created Equal  

Some companies known for their ancestry testing now offer limited carrier screening panels and BRCA tests. But be careful! We at the Sarnoff Center caution consumers to think about a number of issues when considering direct-to-consumer testing for health information.  For instance, these tests typically do not include genetic counseling, an important part of any testing process. Sometimes, the results given by these tests are extremely limited and potentially misleading. For example, recent headlines show 23andMe’s direct-to-consumer test misses almost 90 percent of mutation carriers, including many in the Jewish community. Also, in almost all cases, physicians and genetic counselors who see patients regarding DTC results will and should recommend that patients get more comprehensive testing.

Your doctor can help you stay proactive about your risks – especially if they know about your Jewish heritage!  

sarnoff center chitribe survey

The Sarnoff Center is conducting a survey to gain insights into these areas, and urges you to participate before it closes at the end of June.


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Written by Sarah Goldberg

Sarah Goldberg is the assistant director of the Norton & Elaine Sarnoff Center for Jewish Genetics. She has a bachelor’s from Emory University and a Master of Science in Health Communication from Northwestern. Sarah grew up in the Chicago, and is passionate about improving the health of the Jewish community and all communities.

Norton &Elaine Sarnoff Center for Jewish Genetics

The Norton & Elaine Sarnoff Center for Jewish Genetics is a community resource for education, access to expertise, and a subsidized carrier screening program.

Jewish and interfaith couples in Illinois also have access to the Sarnoff Center’s affordable, accessible screening program.

Learn more the resources available to you in Chicago


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Sarah Goldberg

Sarah Goldberg

Assistant Director Norton & Elaine Sarnoff Center for Jewish Genetics Jewish United Fund