In the war on breast cancer, Israel leads

Participants in the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure walk through the streets of Jerusalem on Oct. 28, 2010 to raise awareness about breast cancer. (Rose Inbal)

JERUSALEM (JTA) — Irit Paneth, in and out of remission from breast cancer for more than a decade, was among the thousands who wound their way like a giant pink-and-white ribbon through Jerusalem’s streets in the first Susan G. Komen Foundation’s Race for the Cure held in Israel.

“What’s important here is to raise awareness,” Paneth said during the Oct. 28 march, wearing the pink T-shirt reserved for breast cancer survivors.

The shirts are a signature of the Komen foundation, which has become the global leader in the war against breast cancer and co-sponsored last week’s event with Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America, and the city of Jerusalem.

The route of the 5-kilometer race that ended in the valley of Ben Hinom, in the shadow of Jerusalem’s Old City walls, tread on especially fertile ground: Israel has one of the highest breast cancer rates in the world. It’s the most prevalent disease among Israeli women, with about 4,000 diagnosed every year.

Genetics are partially to blame. Ashkenazi Jews are 10 times more likely than the general population to carry the BRCA genes, mutations that often lead to breast cancer. Iraqi Jews also carry the genes in higher numbers.

Meanwhile, the number of cases has risen among Arab Israeli women, for whom the disease once was rarely found.

New studies show that Israeli women have nearly a one in seven chance of developing breast cancer; in the United States it’s closer to one in eight.

Beyond the bleak numbers, there is some positive news out of Israel concerning breast cancer: The country is a world leader in survival rates and cutting-edge research. One of the two BRCA gene mutations was discovered as part of a collaboration that included Tamar Peretz, the director of Hadassah Medical Center’s oncology department.

Israel has become a model for other countries. Hospitals offer targeted therapies for specific types of tumors based on in-house and international research as well as holistic treatments — including psychologists trained to counsel cancer patients and their families. The national health system provides free mammogram screening for those over 50 or considered a high risk for the cancer. Some women from around the world come to Israel for treatment.

With about 70 percent of Israeli women diagnosed at an early stage, survival rates are over 90 percent, according to Miri Ziv, director of the Israel Cancer Association. This year, she said, new breast cancer cases were reported to be on the decline.

Outreach to communities that in the past may have missed out on detection has been improved with the help of the Israel Cancer Association’s mobile mammogram clinic, which travels throughout the country.

Other organizations reach out to haredi Orthodox, Arab and Russian immigrant communities to help ensure they get screenings. Among the haredi and Arab populations the problem is especially acute because of cultural taboos that make discussion of the disease, let alone treatment, difficult.

Israelis and Palestinians are cooperating in the breast cancer battle.

The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee’s Israel office has worked with a Palestinian nonprofit organization to create support groups for women diagnosed in Gaza and the West Bank. Israeli oncologists from Hadassah and their Palestinian counterparts at Augusta Victoria in eastern Jerusalem consult with one another and visit each other’s patients.

During last week’s Komen race, secular and religious Jewish women could be seen walking alongside Druze and Arab women.

Nancy Brinker, who founded the Komen Foundation in 1982 after her sister’s death from breast cancer, told JTA that she was excited about bringing the race to Israel.

“I’m Jewish and I have the BRCA gene, and my sister probably did as well,” she said.

Brinker’s recently published memoir, “Promise Me: How a Sister’s Love Launched the Global Movement to End Breast Cancer,” tells the story of the promise she made in 1980 to her older sister, Susan G. Komen, then 36 and dying of cancer, to do all she could to eradicate breast cancer. Since its founding, the organization has raised $1.5 billion for research, treatment and awareness.

“We look at regions very carefully and decide where we can help people make giant steps forward in any points of our mission,” Brinker said. “We’ve put almost $40 million into 50 different countries, and Israel is an important part of our global community.”

Over the years, the Komen Foundation has given more than $2 million in research grants to Israeli scientists. Research the organization helped fund at the Weizmann Institute contributed to the development of Herceptin, one of the first breast cancer drugs on the market.

Given the Jewish genetic dimension to the disease, Israel also is playing a leading role in genetic research.

Ephrat Levy-Lahad, who heads the Jerusalem Shaare Zedek Medical Center’s department of medical genetics — as well as the Israel Cancer Association-funded Genetics Consortium Project — is working to evaluate the risk level that carriers of BRCA1 and BRCA2 have of developing breast and ovarian cancer. Levy-Lahad found, for example, that a specific minor genetic change in another gene greatly increases the risk of those with BRCA2 developing the disease.

Israel’s health funds provide free testing for the BRCA gene among those with a family history of breast cancer.

For Jennifer Griffin, 40, a Fox News correspondent who spent seven years based in Jerusalem, the research in Israel is personal. Diagnosed a year ago with triple negative breast cancer, a particularly aggressive strain of the disease that tends to attack younger women, she returned to Jerusalem last week as an ambassador for the Komen Foundation.

“The answer to it probably lies somewhere here because there is such a strong community affected here and more scientists are working on it,” Griffin said of triple negative breast cancer, which though rare is more common among Ashkenazim who have the BRCA1 gene.

“The more funds Komen can funnel here,” she said, “the more progress can also be made worldwide.”