By Sharon Wisch-Ray
Elaine Pearlman looks to be the picture of health. In fact, the 56-year-old Dallas wife and mother of two, has always been a fanatic about eating right, exercising, getting enough rest and all the other ingredients of “picture-perfect” health. That’s why her diagnosis of Stage 2 invasive ductal carcinoma in February 2017 was a shock.
“I went in for my routine mammogram, 3D. They found something and they called me back,” she explained. It was the second year that Pearlman had the more advanced screening mammogram (see story on Page 9). The previous year’s test didn’t pick anything up.
For Pearlman, the next few days were a whirlwind of activity. Her gynecologist, Dr. Brian Cohen, proactively scheduled a biopsy for her the same day that she went back for a second film.
“On Friday, Feb. 10, I got a call that I had breast cancer. I was in California going to my niece’s bat mitzvah. We were stunned. Sitting in the car, numb. The doctor who did my biopsy had said he didn’t think it was anything. I’m so healthy. I have no breast cancer in my family anywhere. I’m so healthy. I wasn’t that worried because I’m so healthy.”
What Pearlman knows now is that cancer doesn’t discriminate and while she was healthy in her habits and took exquisite care of herself, she didn’t know at the time that she was positive for the BRCA2 (pronounced BRACKA) genetic mutation.
After her diagnosis things moved very quickly. By the next week, she had been scheduled for a lumpectomy and met with oncologist Dr. Joyce O’Shaughnessy of Texas Oncology.
This was an important step that Pearlman credits to her dear friend Laura Miller, former Dallas mayor. Miller’s first battle with breast cancer was well-documented by Miller herself. Now, she is facing a second bout with the disease 18 years later.
“Laura set an appointment up for me before I even had my surgery. I’m so glad I went to Dr. O’Shaughnessy because she wanted specific tests done on my tumor at the time of my surgery — a very specific ONCO test. You only have one opportunity to have that test and it’s at the time of surgery,” said Pearlman
By having the ONCO test, Pearlman learned what type of tumor she had and what types of treatments it would be most receptive to.
It was a several week process to wait for the ONCO score to come back. A time in which Pearlman was recovering from surgery and learning as much as possible about her diagnosis. During that time, the question came up about whether she should have genetic testing for BRCA.
“I want to stress that so many doctors, my oncologist and another oncologist who’s a friend didn’t think I needed to get a BRCA test. I was 55 at the time and they said I would have presented with breast cancer before now. They said, ‘Be safe, have it, but it’s unlikely you have it.’ We do the BRCA test. And lo and behold I’m BRCA2+.”
One in 40 Ashkenazi Jews —men and women — carries a BRCA mutation. That’s more than 10 times the rate of the general population.
After a seven-week or so wait, Pearlman learned that chemotherapy would not add a significant benefit to her prognosis. The toxicity of the treatment outweighed any potential benefit, so chemo wasn’t a good option. She was put on Arimidex to suppress hormone production.
Pearlman’s knowledge of having the BRCA2 mutation influenced next steps. In April she had a bilateral mastectomy. In July, she had reconstruction.
“On Sept. 8, I had my ovaries and tubes out. With my BRCA2 mutation my risk of ovarian cancer was 20 percent. It’s higher with BRCA1, 44 percent. I had to have them out before the end of the year.”
Despite four surgeries in a little over six months and a serious breast cancer diagnosis, Pearlman still looks to be the picture of health, and she is very positive about her future.
She attributes her outlook to a number of Jewish soul traits and a strong support network.
“I have a strong support system. My doctor, my husband, my cancer buddy Laura Miller, my friend Cynthia Shipper as well as my other dear friends have kept me sane. Also, I want to show my kids that you can’t just fall apart in a bad situation.”
Pearlman stressed the importance of having a cancer buddy who could understand what she was going through. She has had Laura Miller, but she realizes others might not have a go to person who is knowledgeable and can advocate and support them through the breast cancer process.
While recovering at Medical City from her bilateral mastectomy, a hospital volunteer brought her a package and a beautiful pillow from an organization called Sharsheret. She had heard of the organization before from her friend Lizzy Greif. It supports Jewish women diagnosed with breast cancer or at genetic risk for breast cancer and their families. Greif has lost two sisters — Margot Pulitzer and Sheri Rosenberg — to breast cancer.
Upon further investigation, Pearlman learned Sharsheret can be that “cancer buddy” for any Jewish woman who needs support.
“Sharsheret will do everything. I’ve never heard of such a thing but they are amazing and they will fill in whatever gaps you need at every stage,” Pearlman explained.
She was so inspired by the organization’s good works that she has trained to be a member of its peer support network. “Whoever calls me, I’ll be there for them.”
Pearlman said she met a wise, observant Jewish woman while in Aspen between surgeries. She had shared her story and the woman asked her, ‘so now you have your diagnosis, what are you going to do with your time here? BRCA sounds a lot like bracha. Maybe it’s a blessing to know… to make an informed decision.’”
In that light, Pearlman stresses to everyone she meets the importance of having a 3D mammogram. She feels certain that a 2-D test would not have caught her tiny but very serious tumor.
“People ask me all the time, what I need. I tell them I don’t need soup, I need you to get a 3D mammogram this year.”
She added, “In Judaism, we say when you save one life, you save the world. I am so fortunate to be here and feel good and four surgeries later I have a voice and I want to use it. I feel so strongly that people should know about Sharsheret and that people should know about their own bodies and what they need to do to be aware.”
What’s Jewish about Breast Cancer
Sharsheret will present What’s Jewish about Breast Cancer and Ovarian Cancer, at 7 p.m., Wednesday, Oct. 25, at the home of Elaine and Trevor Pearlman, 5404 Park Lane in Dallas. Speaking that evening are Sharsheret’s Executive Director Elana Silber and Director of Navigation and Support Services Shera Dubitsky.
“We’re looking to attract women of all ages to talk about what’s Jewish about breast and ovarian cancer,” said Silber. “In the Jewish community this is an urgent situation because of the genetics piece.”
Silber explained that 1 in 40 Jews of Ashkenazi descent — both men and women — carries a BRCA gene mutation compared to 1 in 500 in the general population significantly increasing the risk for hereditary breast, ovarian and related cancers. A woman who carries a BRCA mutation has up to an 80 percent chance of developing breast cancer and an up-to-40-percent chance developing ovarian cancer. The goal of the presentation will be to educate and answer any questions people have.
Silber explained that Sharsheret essentially offers wrap-around resources for everything related to being Jewish with breast cancer or an increased risk for breast cancer.
“Everything we do is free, confidential. Women can remain anonymous. Everything is convenient. We understand that women are busy. One of our fundamentals is to get you the information when you want it how you want it. Women and their families are accessing our programs by phone by email, by live chat, on Facebook, by texting. We are wherever you are.”
Elaine Pearlman and Lizzy Greif are co-chairing the Oct. 25 program. It is free and open to the community, but an RSVP at www.sharsheret.org/dallas is required for planning purposes.
To learn more about Sharsheret or access its free, confidential services visit www.sharsheret.org or call 1-866-474-2774.