TORONTO — It’s been more than a decade, but for Eric Moses, the cantor at Toronto’s Beth Sholom Synagogue, it’s still not easy to talk about.
It was late December, 2003, when Moses and his pregnant wife Melissa, expecting twins, headed to Women’s College Hospital for a routine ultrasound. As it is with most couples, the ultrasound is normally a celebratory time when excited parents-to-be are able catch a glimpse of their little one — or, in this case, little ones.
Eric and Melissa had even planned to visit a baby store after their appointment, ready to purchase a double stroller. But, as the saying goes, “God laughs when we make plans.”
“I still remember the obstetrician calling us into his office with a grim look on his face,” recalled the cantor. “He informed Melissa that she had a malignant tumor in her breast. He would need to induce her pregnancy as soon as possible to begin her cancer treatment.”
Canadian-Jewish researcher Dr. Steven Narod is a world leader in the field of breast and ovarian cancer genetics and one of the scientists who discovered the correlations between these cancers and BRCA gene mutations. Shortly after Melissa’s diagnosis, Narod tested her and discovered that she had the BRCA1 gene mutation.
Ashkenazi Jews are 10 times more likely to have mutations in BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes than the general population
Like many other tumor suppressor genes, the protein produced from the BRCA1 gene helps prevent cells from growing and dividing too rapidly or in an uncontrolled way. However, researchers have identified more than 1,000 mutations in the BRCA1 gene, many of which are associated with an increased risk of cancer (particularly breast cancer in women). Researchers believe that a defective or missing BRCA1 protein is unable to help repair damaged DNA or fix mutations that occur in other genes. As these defects accumulate, they can allow cells to grow and divide uncontrollably and form a tumor.
Studies of DNA samples revealed that Ashkenazi (Eastern European) Jews are 10 times more likely to have mutations in BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes than the general population. Approximately 2.65 percent of the Ashkenazi Jewish population has a mutation in these genes, while only 0.2 percent of the general population carries these mutations.
Actress Angelina Jolie, who is of French-Canadian decent, also falls into a high-risk population for BRCA mutations. Her announcement last year of her double mastectomy after positively testing for BRCA mutations raised awareness of preventative options. In the wave of publicity following Jolie’s surgery last year, groundbreaking researcher Narod emphasized to The Times of Israel the importance of widespread testing in the Jewish community.
University of Toronto professor Dr. Kelly Metcalfe, who works with Narod, agrees, saying, “Genetic testing for BRCA1 and BRCA2 allows us to identify women who have a very high risk of breast and ovarian cancer. As a result, a woman can then elect for options to help significantly reduce or eliminate this risk of developing breast or ovarian cancer in the future.”
A recent study conducted by Narod’s team finds that a preventative oophorectomy, removal of the ovaries, in women carrying the mutation reduces death from breast and ovarian cancers by 70 percent. The logic is that it is easier to prevent cancers than detect them and removing the potential sites of the cancers almost always defeats them.
Preparing for battle
Dazed and in shock, Eric and Melissa Moses left the hospital that December trying to understand how what should have been a day of joy had quickly, and without warning, become so dark.
“We had an 18-month-old son, our twins were about to be delivered prematurely and Melissa had breast cancer,” said Moses. “We entered the baby store in silence, bought the stroller and left. I don’t recall saying anything much to Melissa on the endless drive home because there was nothing to say, just so much to do.”
Fortunately, despite the news about Melissa’s health, there was still something to celebrate as the following week — on January 6 the Moses’s four-pound twin daughters were born in good health.
But now came the start of what Eric called the longest journey of their lives, the battle to conquer breast cancer. Melissa, 33, endured five operations and six months of chemotherapy.
Fast forward ten years to 2014, and things in the Moses household are good. The journey they began a decade earlier, while full of twists and turns, has, for the most part, gone about as well as could be hoped.
With each year that passes, Melissa’s chances of a recurrence diminish and, according to statistics, after 10 years, a survivor’s odds of metastases is greatly reduced.
So, with the twins reaching age 10 and with Melissa successfully passing this vital threshold, Cantor Moses decided that it was time to celebrate.
A musical celebration, with a twist
On March 27, 2014, Beth Sholom will do just that, as the shul will be hosting an inspirational celebration, unlike anything else that’s taken place in the synagogue’s 67-year history with a concert called Kol Isha – The Female Voice.
Hosted by CTV medical correspondent Dr. Marla Shapiro, also a breast cancer survivor and Beth Sholom member, Kol Isha will feature eight of the globe’s top Jewish female vocalists including Neshama Carlebach, Theresa Tova, and Amy Sky.
“Part of the reason I organized this very special concert was to demonstrate to Melissa my admiration of her courage, resolve and determination to beat this for the sake of her family and her love for her children,” said Cantor Moses, who found sponsors in the Women’s College Hospital Research Institute-Familial Breast Cancer Research Unit, UJA Federation of Greater Toronto and Beth Sholom Synagogue.
And it’s a celebration that Melissa is ready for.
“In celebrating my girls’ 10-year-old birthday with my family a few short weeks ago, I was overcome with feelings of contentment and pride,” she said. “A small tear came to my eye as the girls blew out their candles. I made it!
‘The reason that I sing is that I believe that healing happens in the universe when we reach out with authentic, genuine love’
“This celebration may mark my 10 years but it is for all cancer survivors. This concert is about celebrating life, in song by-women-for-women. There is no better way to celebrate life than to sing it out loud for everyone to hear,” said Melissa.
Perhaps nobody espouses the health benefits of song more than New York-born, Toronto-raised singer Neshama Carlebach, the daughter of the late legendary Jewish singer-songwriter Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, who perpetuates the legacy established by her father.
“I’m so honored to have been invited to be a part of this concert,” said Carlebach. “I feel that any moment worth celebrating is a divine miracle, and certainly the survival of Melissa is just that.
“The reason that I sing is that I believe that healing happens in the universe when we reach out with authentic, genuine love. Music is the language of the soul, and, as my father would say, ‘When we sing, we pray twice.’ I want to be one of those people who brings healing,” said Carlebach.
Every woman over 18 attending the concert will be offered complementary genetic testing for the three Jewish mutations on the two breast cancer genes (BRCA1/BRCA2) to participate in a study started in 2008 by Narod and Metcalfe which has upwards of 7,000 participants from across Ontario. Proceeds from the concert will be directed toward the continuation of that BRCA testing study for Jewish women at Women’s College Hospital.
“Melissa and I joined our Beth Sholom family on January 1, 2001, and it has been a wonderful journey together,” said Eric. “We have laughed and cried through the different bumps in the road of life. I invite you to celebrate with us on March 27.”