My Jewish Genes

Being Jewish comes with a lot of great things – the holidays, the food, thousands of years of tradition. But being Jewish also comes with some serious baggage – fasting on Yom Kippur, indigestion, thousands of years of inbreeding. This past year I’ve been smacked in the face with the repercussions of coming from a not so large gene pool that hasn’t diversified much in 4,000 years.

Let me start at the beginning. About a year ago, my dad and I did DNA testing through 23andMe. Mostly we were interested in proving (or disproving) some family lore about our ancestry. But when 23andMe gave me the option to also get an analysis of the “health” part of my genes, I thought “why not?” Generally speaking, my ancestors have been a pretty healthy bunch (except for some poor choices with smoking – but we’ve all seen Mad Men – it was a choice that seemed cool at the time). I got my results back, and it was a big shock to find out that I had a mutation in my BRCA-1 gene – more commonly known as the “Breast Cancer Gene.”

Women with the BRCA-1 gene mutation have an 80% likelihood of developing breast cancer in their lifetime and a 40% likelihood of developing ovarian cancer – it’s heavy stuff. But here’s the kicker – 1 in 400 women in the general population have a BRCA gene mutation, but 1 in 40 Ashkenazi Jewish women have a BRCA gene mutation. For thousands of years we were focused on marrying other Jews to keep Judaism alive but we didn’t realize that keeping the gene pool small meant we were passing on some pretty dangerous genes.

Lo and behold, before I could get my head wrapped around what my new gene info meant, I felt a lump. It wasn’t small. It was cancerous. It was trying to kill me. My Jewish genes were betraying me. But what I quickly learned from lots of hours sitting and waiting in doctors’ offices (and reading all of the pamphlets there to take advantage of the captive audience) is that I’m not alone. 2.5% of Ashkenazi Jewish women have the same jacked up BRCA gene that I do. And while a lot of BRCA carriers have to make the tough choice about what to do about it (preventative surgeries or bi-annual screenings) the cancer made the choice for me – after meeting with my oncology team I had a plan for 16 rounds of chemo (which I just finished, yay!) followed by surgery and radiation.

Plus, now that I know about my genes, and there is now a family history of breast cancer (me), my immediate family needs to be tested to understand their own cancer risks. Yuck. On the bright side, my family members now know to get tested – before my cancer diagnosis we all had the same problematic genes, we just didn’t know about it. On average, being Jewish is pretty great. But for those of us with inherited cancer risk – our genes make being Jewish a little less fun.

For more information on hereditary breast cancers and the unique risks faced by Ashkenazi Jews, visit Sharsheret or FORCES.

Arianna Gavzy lives in Richfield with her adorable puppy, Bart. To learn more about her journey with hereditary breast cancer, visit her website at