CJG Blog

Center for Jewish Genetics blog

Dad the Hypocrite: A Confession

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By Jason Rothstein

People who know me have heard me speak many times in defense of hypocrisy.

Look, we should all try to live up to the ideals and values we espouse, and there’s not much to admire in someone who publicly declares one set of values while privately living another, particularly when those choices are thoughtless, selfish, or cruel.

But a little bit of hypocrisy? A little bit of hypocrisy keeps the world spinning. A little bit of hypocrisy acknowledges that our flaws should not keep us from striving to be better.

Give me a choice between a political candidate who is a hypocrite and a political candidate who is a scold, and I’ll vote for the hypocrite every time.

Last Father’s Day, I wrote an impassioned post about the importance of staying healthy as a dad. I wrote about as a father, making time for self-care is actually a selfless act, because the family needs you to be healthy and capable.

And I was right. But I was also a big, fat hypocrite. (And not just figuratively.)

I don’t know if my blog post reached anyone else, but after some reflection that my hypocrisy, in this case, was indefensible, I took action. I cataloged all the things that seemed to be going wrong prematurely in my middle-aged dad body, and then I scheduled a general physical for the first time in almost three years.

The results were not pretty, but not hopeless. I scheduled a follow up for three months later and got to work.

I didn’t do anything fancy. I resurrected a long dormant MyFitnessPal account and started logging food reliably and made some adjustments to my diet. I cut out sweets and alcohol altogether temporarily. I instituted a serious walking regimen, and when the Series 4 Apple Watch came out, I decided to finally put away my beloved mechanical watch for something that might be able to do more than tell me the time.

In three months, I lost nearly 20 pounds, and was taken out of some immediate danger zones by my doctor. I loosened up on some of the diet restrictions but kept everything else and lost another 10 pounds by the new year. Chicago’s winter set me back a bit, but even then on most days, I was dutifully logging two miles in downtown’s little-known and underused pedway system. 

(I didn’t care whether people noticed or not, but I got comments almost everywhere except work. When you work at a Jewish organization, the few comments about weight loss are all prefaced with, “Is everything okay? Are you sick?” We are nothing if not haimisch at JUF.)

To repeat it again, I am a middle-aged dad. I didn’t do this to improve my dating prospects, or to get ready for the beach, or to train for an athletic event. I did it so I could chase my son around the playground without feeling like I was going to keel over. I did it so I had the endurance to keep carrying my daughter when that was the only thing that would get her to sleep. I did it to improve the odds that I will see my kids bar and bat mitzvah’d, see them get married, see them have children of their own.

I have more work to do, and I bet even the healthiest, fittest dads reading this do too. Get that check-up. Get that test. There are better ways of being a hypocrite than short changing your health and your family.  

Savvy Summer Health Tips

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By Carol Guzman

Memorial Day weekend is considered the unofficial start of summer, and for good reason! The upcoming holiday marks the beginning of sunny days, longs nights and, of course, summer health. There’s nothing quite like summer in Chicago. Learn how to enjoy it to its fullest by checking out these summer health tips:

  • Practice Sun Safety: The bright sunshine is one of the summer’s biggest draws. Unfortunately, catching some rays and enjoying the warmth can be hazardous to your health. Sunburns can increase a person’s risk of getting skin cancer. People of Ashkenazi Jewish ancestry are significantly more likely to have a BRCA2 genetic mutation which is linked to an increased risk of melanoma, as well as other malignancies. The American Academy of Dermatology recommends wearing protective clothing, using a broad-spectrum, water-resistant sunscreen with SPF 30+ and seeking shade to reduce your risk of skin cancer. 
  • Stay Hydrated: As the temperatures rise, getting enough to drink is important when you’re under the sun. The CDC suggests making water your drink of choice this summer, as sugary and alcoholic drinks can cause a person to lose body fluid. They recommend everyone hydrate and drink plenty of fluids, even when they may not be thirsty. 
  • Say Yes to Summer Fruits and Vegetables: Sunny, warm weather kicks off the outdoor farmer’s market season. Head to the one nearest you and scope out summer fruits and vegetables to prepare a healthy summer menu. Fruits and veggies typically cost less when they are in season. A few of our favorites include berries, cherries, corn, mangoes, peaches, strawberries, watermelon and tomatoes. 
  • Learn about Your Genetic Health: Learning about your genetic health can be done at any time of the year, so why not be proactive and start this summer? If you’re getting together for a family BBQ on Memorial Day or Fourth of July, start a conversation about health history, and encourage your friends to do the same. Later this summer, join the Sarnoff Center for a conversation about CRISPR and how genetic technologies are shaping our future. Of course, you can always contact our genetic counselor or visit us at jewishgenetics.org to learn more about different kinds of genetic testing, Jewish genetic disorders, hereditary cancer and what genetic health risks can mean for you. 

Whether or not you are excited about the upcoming summertime heat, use these tips learn how to keep you and your loved ones healthy and safe every season. Check out the Sarnoff Center calendar to keep an eye out for events where you can learn more about your genetic health this summer and throughout the year.

What We Inherited From Our Moms: Mother's Day Reflections from the Sarnoff Center Team

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We all inherit many qualities from our moms – some by nature and others through nurture. As Mother’s Day approaches, our staff is sharing a few things our moms passed on to us.   

  • I inherited my mother’s voice. People often think, when speaking to me over the phone, that I am my mother. My mom uses her voice powerfully. As a physician, she communicates with patients; as a volunteer, she canvasses for change; and as a synagogue lay leader, she welcomes others into her community. I like to think that even if I can’t always perceive it, I use my voice in some of the ways she uses hers. – Becca B., community health educator 

  • I inherited my mother’s compassion. My mother always cared for the people around her selflessly. Her ability to forgive and move forward is something I have always admired and try to emulate. I am able to look at others with compassion and grow as an empathetic person because of my mother. – Becca S., administrative assistant 

  • I inherited my mother’s laughter. I could pick out my mother’s distinct laugh in a noisy room. When she laughs she does so with her entire body; her shoulders move up and down and her mouth is open so wide that her eyes close. Making her laugh is one of life’s small joys. – Carol, program associate 

  • I inherited brown eyes from both of my parents, but it’s my mother whom I credit for my critical eye. A skeptic to her core, my mother ingrained in me the value of always examining statements closely, and even more closely when the source sounds confident. – Jason, executive director 

  • I inherited my mother’s love for shopping. We can’t walk away from a good deal! – Melissa, genetic counselor 

  • When I look into the mirror I see my mom’s reflection: I inherited her hair, her face and her mannerisms. However, best of all I inherited her optimism and caring for others. – Paula, associate VP, JUF 

  • I inherited many things from my mom, including a sense of Tikkun Olam. My mom lives this value, always pursuing social justice and trying to make the world a better place for others. I also have her need for organization and curly hair. – Sarah, assistant director 

Whether your mother is near or far or a blessed memory, take a few minutes this weekend to reflect on items, traits and conditions that have been passed down in your family. Maybe it’s a special recipe from grandma to mom to you or maybe you inherited your mother’s hair color. But also take note of any health conditions that may run in your family so you can share this information with your doctor. There’s no better way to honor mom than by protecting your health and the health of your family. 

Happy Mother’s Day to you and yours! 

Need tools to get started? Visit JewishGenetics.org or contact us to speak to our genetic counselor. 

Squint to read the DTC fine print

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By Jason Rothstein, MPH

The appeal of direct-to-consumer (DTC) genetic testing is undeniable, but comes with some caveats that may not apply to most of the other products and services sold under this model.

DTC is everywhere these days, and it’s not hard to see why. DTC companies promise higher-than-average quality for lower-than-average prices on a wide range of products like razor blades, pants, and shoes.

These models also extend to bigger ticket items like mattresses, and more personalized goods like eyeglasses. I’ve been extremely nearsighted since I was in elementary school, and now also need bifocals to read comfortably. Because I’m so dependent on my eyeglasses, I’m really picky about quality and willing to spend more money.

And yet, I’m typing this while gazing at the screen from behind my specs from a prominent DTC eyeglasses company whose name rhymes with Shmarby Shmarker. These companies and their pitches are highly appealing: better quality, more convenience, lower cost, and satisfaction guaranteed. What could go wrong?

Actually, a lot.

It’s easy to understand why someone might seek out DTC options for more complicated services as well. Today, if you’re interested in getting a genetic test for cancer risk, you can make an appointment with your doctor, then speak with a genetic counselor or specialist, then opt in to testing that may or may not be covered by insurance, and then go through another round of appointments to discuss your results. DTC tests offer much greater simplicity, but that simplicity comes at a significant sacrifice.

Recently, Heather Murphy wrote in the New York Times about a little-known aspect of the BRCA-related cancer risk testing offered by DTC genetics company, 23&Me. Their test only looks at three common BRCA mutations, but numerous other BRCA mutations also increase an individuals risk for breast, ovarian, and other cancers. Among women with any cancer-causing BRCA mutation, 23&Me’s test would miss nearly 90% of them from its positive results.

A negative result from this test might look reassuring, but in fact tells recipients very little about their potential for increased cancer risk. Worse, it might lead an individual to be less diligent with their own self-screening and with bringing concerns to their doctors.

23&Me doesn’t hide the limitations of its testing, and they aren’t trying to mislead. But you have to dive pretty deeply into their fine print – and have a somewhat sophisticated knowledge of genetic tests – to understand what this test does and does not tell you.

At the Sarnoff Center, we believe that genetic tests for cancer risk and reproductive risk should be paired with expert assistance, either through a qualified genetic counselor, or through a physician with specialist knowledge to explain and interpret genetic tests and results.

DTC models are great when you have the knowledge to evaluate what you’re getting. Is this razor blade as good as the one you buy at the drug store? Is this mattress as comfortable as the one you slept on before? Do these eyeglasses correct your vision comfortably and accurately? You can answer all those questions for yourself.

But when you’re seeking genetic information to help you understand your health risks, ask yourself honestly: Do I understand this test and its limitations? Will I understand the results? Would I benefit from expert assistance?

At the Sarnoff Center, our genetic counselor can help explain the differences among different kinds of genetic testing, and can help you identify resources to get the assistance you need. For all such inquiries, contact Melissa Ramos. We also recommend you take a moment to review our Board’s statement about DTC cancer testing.

(And for any opticians wishing to send hate mail, you can reach out to me directly.) 


Affordable, Accessible Genetic Screening in Illinois

Our affordable, accessible carrier screening program uses advanced technology to provide comprehensive screening for Jewish and interfaith couples. Visit our Get Screened page to learn more and register.


Do You Know What's In Your Genes?

What is the most valuable gift you can give to your family? The gift of good health! There are many health conditions that run in families. Knowing your family health history can alert you to the potential risk for a variety of genetic disorders . Talk to your relatives for warning signs and assess your risk for hereditary cancers.

Did you know: Ashkenazi Jews are 10 TIMES more likely to have BRCA mutations, which significantly increases lifetime risks for hereditary cancers, so what does this heightened risk mean for you? Click here to learn more .