Canadian Women of Ashkenazi Jewish Ancestry Offered Free Testing For Cancer Gene Mutation

“One-thousand Canadian Jewish women are being offered a chance to take a free test to find out if they are at a high risk of developing breast and ovarian cancers. Scientists with Women’s College Research Institute will screen for three inherited breast cancer gene mutations common to people of Ashkenazi Jewish ancestry with the aim of preventing the disease. …”

“One-thousand Canadian Jewish women are being offered a chance to take a free test to find out if they are at a high risk of developing breast and ovarian cancers. Scientists with Women’s College Research Institute will screen for three inherited breast cancer gene mutations common to people of Ashkenazi Jewish ancestry with the aim of preventing the disease.

Adult Jewish women in Ontario, who have no known family history of breast or ovarian cancer, are being offered a blood test to screen for three specific mutations of the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes, beginning this Thursday in Toronto. Jewish women with a family history of breast or ovarian cancer who have never been tested are also eligible. If expanding genetic testing to this group proves worthwhile, it could change the way the testing is offered across Canada by recognizing cancer risk due to ancestry.

The goal of the test is ‘to prevent cancer,’ said Steven Narod, director of the familial breast cancer research unit at Women’s College Research Institute. He said one in 44 Ashkenazi Jewish people carry the mutation compared to the general population in which an estimated one in 400 individuals carries a mutation in BRCA1 or BRCA2. According to UIA Federations Canada, most of Canada’s Jewish population is Ashkenazi — 327,360 out of a total of 370,055 — and about half of the Ashkenazi Jewish population, 165,175 — live in Toronto.

About 70 per cent of women who are BRCA1 mutation carriers will develop breast cancer by age 70 while 40 per cent will develop ovarian cancer by the same age. Those who carry the BRCA2 genetic mutation face the same breast cancer risk as those BRCA1 mutation carriers, but their risk of developing ovarian cancer is between 15 and 20 per cent by age 70, according to Narod’s group.”

[Quoted Source: Women of Ashkenazi Jewish Ancestry To Be Tested For Cancer Gene Mutation, Times & Transcript, May 28, 2008.]

2 thoughts on “Canadian Women of Ashkenazi Jewish Ancestry Offered Free Testing For Cancer Gene Mutation

  1. Rebecca,

    Thank you for the highly relevant comment. First, I want to congratulate you with respect to your long-term ovarian cancer remission. Regarding genetic risk associated with European (Ashkenazi) Jews, I strongly suggest that you contact the toll free number (1-866-824-7475) sponsored by Facing Our Risk of Cancer Empowered (FORCE). The FORCE website ( is an excellent source of information relating to hereditary breast and ovarian cancer (HBOC). The FORCE counselors should be able to assist you. The FORCE counselor toll free number provides the hours of operation by way of recording because counselors are not available 24/7.

    In addition, a considerable amount of HBOC information is referenced at Libby’s H*O*P*E* through (i) postings (i.e., click on the down arrow located next to the “select category” box positioned at the top of the left homepage side bar, then click on “genetics” and view relevant stories and hyperlinks), (ii) substantive pages (i.e., click on the “Genetics” tab located at the top of the homepage to view hyperlinks to additional genetic and HBOC on-line resources), and (iii) videos (i.e., click on the caption “H*O*P*E* Ovarian Cancer Video Archive” located on the lower right homepage sidebar, and view the video entitled, Making Informed Decisions: Testing & Management for Hereditary Breast and Ovarian Cancer (provided by Myriad Genetic Laboratories, Inc.).

    As you know, Libby’s H*O*P*E* does not render medical advice. In your comment, however, you raise several factual issues that should be evaluated by a certified genetic counselor or appropriate healthcare professional. My general concerns relating to your factual ancestry (based upon your description) are listed below along with other comments.

    • Some experts estimate that 1 in 40 Ashkenazi Jewish women possess one of three mutations with respect to the so-called breast cancer genes (i.e., two mutations in “BRCA 1”, and one mutation in “BRCA 2”). The Stanford Cancer Center website ( provides the following information:

    “[S]pecific recurring mutations have been found in individuals of Ashkenazi Jewish descent, and persons from the Netherlands, Iceland, and Sweden. Mutations recur in these groups because of a so-called “founder’s effect.” “Founders” are a small group of people who, due to geographic or religious isolation, interbred. When a small group of people interbreeds over generations, specific rare mutations can recur and become more common in the population. This is called a founder’s effect. The present day Ashkenazi Jewish population arose from a small group of founders, of whom one or more must have carried specific mutations in the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes. In particular, there are three mutations (two in BRCA1 and one in BRCA2) that account for the majority of the BRCA mutations seen in persons of Ashkenazi Jewish ancestry. This information has practical meaning when it comes to genetic testing because some laboratories now offer “ethnic-specific” mutation panels. Rather than searching through the entire gene every time a person is tested, in some cases, laboratories can instead first look for specific mutations based on a person’s ethnic background. The founder effect is also important in Ashkenazi Jewish individuals because it has led to an increased occurrence of BRCA mutations in this population. In the general population, it is estimated that between one in 400 and one in 600 individuals has a mutation in BRCA1 or BRCA2. In contrast, one in 40 Ashkenazi individuals has one of the recurring mutations. This increased occurrence has implications in terms of assessing the significance of a family history of breast and ovarian cancer in Ashkenazi versus non-Ashkenazi persons.”

    • Based upon your facts, there are three women (i.e., you, your mother, and sister) in your family who had breast or ovarian cancer prior to the age of 50 (although your sister had breast cancer at the age of 54, assuming it was breast cancer based upon your description).

    • If you are tested and the results indicate that you possess a BRCA mutation(s), that mutation could (i) present a risk of future breast cancer to you, and (ii) be passed down to your son, who could be at greater risk for other cancers such as pancreatic, prostate, laryngeal, stomach cancer, and melanoma. In turn, any BRCA mutations possessed by your son could be passed on to his children, i.e., the two boys. If a grandchild possesses the BRCA mutation, it could be passed on to his children, which may include girls in the future.

    • A certified genetic counselor should also be able to address the issue, if any, of unrelated or “sporadic” cancer (i.e., non-hereditary) in your family line as part of a general consultation.

    • You did not state the type of cancer that afflicted your maternal and paternal grandparents, but if that information is available, you may want to obtain it in advance of any consultation with a certified genetic counselor or healthcare professional.

    • Women’s College Research Institute, locate in Toronto, Canada is sponsoring free genetic testing for Ashkenazi Jewish women as part of a medical study; however, the website indicates that the study is currently full. You should contact them anyway just to be sure and place your name on their waiting list.

    Women’s College Hospital
    790 Bay Street
    Suites 902-908
    Toronto, ON M5G 1N8
    (416) 323-6400 (main hospital switchboard)
    (email your name and phone number to:

    • You should be able to obtain the address of various Canadian genetic clinics from
    Canadian Association of Genetic Counselors
    344 Lakeshore Road East, Suite B
    Oakville Ontario, L6J 1J6
    Telephone: (905) 849-8299
    Fax: (905) 849-8606

    I should emphasize that possession of BRCA mutations does not mean that an individual will get cancer in the future. It may mean that your doctor (or your son’s doctor) will run periodic screening tests to guard against the risk of a future cancer occurrence. I trust this factual information is helpful. Best, Paul


  2. I am of European Jewish descent. I was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 1981, had melphalen by mouth for one year with a second look operation. I am now 57, this happened when I was 31.

    I am interested in learning more about the possibility/probability of having a non-related cancer develop as I age.

    My sister had a non-specific cancer and chemo at age 54 which was a breast cancer they thing of unknown origin. She is now 60.

    My mother had breast cancer in 1970 at age 49, I had a first cousin who died of lymphatic cancer, my both grandmothers dies of cancer, one in 1935 (maternal) and 1953 (paternal).

    Both my parents are second generation Canadian of European Jews.

    I had a son, he has two sons. I questioned an oncologist about probability of this being passed down but with no female progeny it wouldn’t happen.

    I am a healthy, happy 58 year old woman who wishes to learn more about my connection and the possibility of my ovarian cancer being related to my Jewish ancestry.

    Yours truly,
    Rebecca Leith-LeBlanc


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