When a routine mammogram revealed she had early- stage breast cancer three years ago, Nisa Felps wondered about treatment.
The Baltimore resident opted to have a bilateral mastectomy to remove both her breasts to rid herself of the cancer after consulting with a breast surgeon.
“After I came through it, I felt this overwhelming sense of gratitude,” Felps said. “It took almost about a year, and I wanted to give back.”
Phelps, now 43 and a mother of four children, ranging in age from 5 to 13, said she received overwhelming support from her family, friends, co-workers and the community, which was pivotal in her fight.
Through a grassroots effort, Felps has teamed up with Dr. Dee-Dee Shiller for nearly the last two years to provide that same type of assistance to those all around the Greater Baltimore Jewish Community.
For Shiller, who practices at LifeBridge Health and Baltimore Suburban Health in Pikesville, promoting breast cancer awareness, education and treatment is one of her main focuses.
“What Nisa and I are doing … we just want people to know what their family risk is,” Shiller said. “We want people to take this head on, and we are changing the face of this issue in our community.”
According to Shiller, a 43-year-old board certified gynecologist and osteopath, roughly one in 40 Ashkenazi Jews whose ancestors emigrated from Central and Eastern Europe are carriers of the BRCA1 or BRCA2 mutated gene. BRCA1 and BRCA2 are the two genes doctors can test for certain mutations that indicates a high risk for breast cancer.
Half of the offspring of men and women who carry the BRCA gene are susceptible to this hereditary form of the disease, making the need to alert Jews a pressing topic for Felps and Shiller.
In the United States, however, the non-Jewish BRCA rate is about one in 400 people.
“We’re literally navigating through the Baltimore community trying to reach one woman at a time,” Felps said.
Shiller and Felps visit individual homes, community centers and places of worship throughout any given time of the year to spread their message. This year alone, they have put on 16 events and plan to ramp up their efforts for the remainder of October, National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, as well as in the years to come.
At the meetings, which typically draw anywhere from 10 to 100 women, Shiller lends her expertise as a doctor and Felps shares her perspective as a survivor. Men, who can also carry the BRCA1 and BRCA2, have also taken an interest by coming out to several events to hear Shiller and Felps.
“We’re approaching this from a place love,” Felps said. “We care about our community, and we’re not trying to spread fear or scare people. We can change the destiny of Jewish people by being proactive.”
Early detection through testing women’s embryos for the gene can actually help a family eliminate the risk of passing on the dominant BRCA gene to a child, Shiller said.
“My suggestion is we should know about this head on, so that we can change a generation and limit the risk of this disease among Jewish people,” Shiller said.
There is a misconception, Felps said, that such measures can be costly and lead to daunting bills for those who seek to take a proactive approach to monitor for breast cancer.
Under the Affordable Care Act, however, the genetic test is among the preventive services that insurance companies are required to cover without cost sharing. Previously, costs for the screening ran as high as $3,000, making it difficult for women with an average risk of cancer who lack such means to afford paying for part of the test.
The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommends that only women with a strong family history of cancer be evaluated for genetic testing for BRCA mutations.
Still, Shiller said it is important for women who feel they are at risk regardless of family history not to take any chances.
“I just find that helping the Jewish community is just part of who I am,” Shiller said. “I can’t leave that, and we need to work toward bettering our community against breast cancer.”