BRCA 'Jewish' Cancer Gene Mutations Often Go Untested — At Deadly Cost

One Woman's Survival Fight Doomed by Lack of Testing

At Supreme Court: Lisa Schlager and daughter Rachel protest Myriad Genetics’ claim to a patent on the BRCA gene, which they say raised the cost of testing.
Courtesy of Lisa Schlager
At Supreme Court: Lisa Schlager and daughter Rachel protest Myriad Genetics’ claim to a patent on the BRCA gene, which they say raised the cost of testing.

By Karen Iris Tucker

Published August 13, 2013, issue of August 09, 2013.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

When Marcia Watson-Levy was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1997 at age 58, she suspected that heredity played a role: Her sister Rhoda had died of breast cancer 12 years before, at 52.

Yet Watson-Levy, who then lived in San Francisco, said that none of her physicians — her primary doctor, her surgeon or her oncologist — suggested during the years of her treatment that she be tested for a mutation in the BRCA1 gene, which carries a 50 to 70% lifetime risk of developing the disease, or a BRCA2 mutation, linked to a 40 to 60% risk.

Marcia Watson Levy
Marcia Watson Levy

Watson-Levy knew about the screening test for the BRCA mutations, then a couple of years old, but she didn’t push for it. “I assumed that I was probably positive and I didn’t see the need to initiate it myself,” she said. Adding to the likelihood that she carried a mutation was Watson-Levy’s heritage. One in 40 Ashkenazi Jews (about 2.5%) carries a BRCA mutation, compared to 1 in 300 to 500 in the general population (less than 1%).

Placing faith in her doctors that genetic testing was not important in her case, Watson-Levy underwent a mastectomy, received chemotherapy for 3 1/2 years, and then went on with her life. A devotee of silent movies, she and her now-late husband Walter jetted around the country to far-flung film festivals. They frequently sailed the California coast.

Click to see the rest of the section, Click for more stories about genetics.

More than a decade later, however, Watson-Levy was alarmed to read in an article that carrying a BRCA mutation dramatically increased the risk of a second primary breast cancer (one unrelated to the first) as well as gynecologic cancer.

The failure to get tested became a pivotal issue in Watson-Levy’s life. It is a problem that continues today for many patients, and is one that Angelina Jolie sought to address when she announced in May that she carried the BRCA1 mutation and had taken the preventive measure of a double mastectomy.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • Are Michelangelo's paintings anti-Semitic? Meet the Jews of the Sistine Chapel: http://jd.fo/i4UDl
  • What does the Israel-Hamas war look like through Haredi eyes?
  • Was Israel really shocked to find there are networks of tunnels under Gaza?
  • “Going to Berlin, I had a sense of something waiting there for me. I was searching for something and felt I could unlock it by walking the streets where my grandfather walked and where my father grew up.”
  • How can 3 contradictory theories of Yiddish co-exist? Share this with Yiddish lovers!
  • "We must answer truthfully: Has a drop of all this bloodshed really helped bring us to a better place?”
  • "There are two roads. We have repeatedly taken the one more traveled, and that has made all the difference." Dahlia Scheindlin looks at the roots of Israel's conflict with Gaza.
  • Shalom, Cooperstown! Cooperstown Jewish mayor Jeff Katz and Jeff Idelson, director of the National Baseball Hall of Fame, work together to oversee induction weekend.
  • A boost for morale, if not morals.
  • Mixed marriages in Israel are tough in times of peace. So, how do you maintain a family bubble in the midst of war? http://jd.fo/f4VeG
  • Despite the escalating violence in Israel, more and more Jews are leaving their homes in Alaska to make aliyah: http://jd.fo/g4SIa
  • The Workmen's Circle is hosting New York’s first Jewish street fair on Sunday. Bring on the nouveau deli!
  • Novelist Sayed Kashua finds it hard to write about the heartbreak of Gaza from the plush confines of Debra Winger's Manhattan pad. Tough to argue with that, whichever side of the conflict you are on.
  • "I’ve never bought illegal drugs, but I imagine a small-time drug deal to feel a bit like buying hummus underground in Brooklyn."
  • We try to show things that get less exposed to the public here. We don’t look to document things that are nice or that people would like. We don’t try to show this place as a beautiful place.”
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.