I Didn’t Realize O’Brien Was a Japanese Name…

The other day I finally did something about the Hobbit-like state of my feet. The pedicurist, perhaps to distract herself from the heavy lifting before her, was making small talk. Usually these conversations run along the lines of “Do you live nearby?” or “Did you know that most of Emily Dickinson’s poems can be sung to the tune of ‘The Yellow Rose of Texas?”’

So I was a little startled when the Asian woman looked up from her scrubbing and asked: “Are you Japanese?”

This isn’t the first time I’ve been asked that question. It must be my epicanthic folds.

“No,” I said. “I’m Irish. How about yourself?”

“I’m Vietnamese,” she said, laughing to think that anyone could  look at her and not immediately cotton on to this.

In the U.S., we hate to stereotype, but we love to categorize. We’re not being nosy or culturally insensitive, we’re just seeing if we know any of the same people. We are a young country–not too far removed from those 13 original colonies. So it’s possible that if my family lives in Chicago, a city of nearly three million people and your family lives 2046 miles away in Sacramento, well, we might have some mutual friends.

My name is an icebreaker. “Katherine O’Brien,” a new acquaintance will say, often lapsing into an Irish accent that  elevates Dick Van Dyke’s efforts in “Mary Poppins”  to  Meryl Streep’s level of prize winning  linguistic proficiency. “You must be Irish.”

I usually just say yes. But despite being a proud graduate of Santa Maria del Popolo grade school and Carmel Catholic High School, I’m technically Jewish. Just to be more confusing, my mother was technically and undeniably Jewish but a very good Catholic (seven kids in five years!).

I don’t know much about my  grandmother’s family, the Mays. My  Grandpa Isaac left Frankfort  for Ellis Island in 1907. He disembarked the Kaiserin Auguste Victoria with $20 and his Chicago uncle’s address. My mother grew up in Hyde Park. She graduated from the Art Institute and earned her master’s degree from Loyola. Before she met my father in Mexico and got married, she taught art at Mather High School.

All of which is why I just say “Yes,” when people say: “Katie O’Brien! You must be Irish.”

Matrilineality in Judaism is the view that people born of a Jewish mother are themselves Jewish. Given that my knowledge of Judaism is derived almost entirely from watching Robby Benson in “The Chosen” and reading the Holiday issue of “Highlights for Children,” I won’t attempt to explain this complex and controversial topic.

We are all sons and daughters of Abraham–it’s probably best to leave it at that. Unless you have just been diagnosed with breast cancer or have a family history of breast cancer.

People of Jewish descent have a higher risk for a genetic mutation which in turn carries a higher risk for breast and/or ovarian cancer. My mother  died of inflammatory breast cancer, further increasing my breast cancer risk.

Most cancer  just happens–it’s sporadic vs. heriditary. The majority of people who develop breast cancer didn’t inherit an abnormal breast cancer gene and have no family history. But about five percent of people have a genetic mutation which predisposes  them to cancer.

[Edited to incorporate ovarian cancer information. Thanks Casey!]

Two abnormal genes BRCA1 (BReast CAncer gene one) and BRCA2 (BReast CAncer gene two) are associated with a higher lifetime risk of developing breast and/or ovarian cancer.

From the NCI FAQ: A woman who inherits a harmful mutation in BRCA1 or BRCA2 has an increased risk of developing breast and/or ovarian cancer at an early age (before menopause) and often has multiple, close family members who have been diagnosed with these diseases. Harmful BRCA1 mutations may also increase a woman’s risk of developing cervical, uterine, pancreatic, and colon cancer (1, 2). Harmful BRCA2 mutations may additionally increase the risk of pancreatic cancer, stomach cancer, gallbladder and bile duct cancer, and melanoma (3).

All of us have BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes according to  BreastCancer.org: ” The function of the BRCA genes is to repair cell damage and keep breast cells growing normally. But when these genes contain abnormalities or mutations that are passed from generation to generation, the genes don’t function normally and breast cancer risk increases. Abnormal BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes may account for up to 10% of all breast cancers, or 1 out of every 10 cases.”

Ashkenazi (Eastern European) Jews are 10 times more likely to have mutations in BRCA1 and BRCA 2 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.

Note that most U.S. Jews are  Ashkenazi (their ancestors came from Eastern Europe) vs. Sephardic  (their ancestors came from Spain, Portugal, North Africa and the Middle East).

Having an abnormal BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene doesn’t mean you will be diagnosed with breast cancer: Only seven percent of breast cancers in Ashkenazi women are caused by alterations in BRCA1 and BRCA2 (See www.genome.gov/10000507.)

When I was first diagnosed (but before my mets were discovered) I was meeting with a surgeon,  Dr. Patty O’Furniture.* It was the my first meeting with Dr. O’Furniture. She took my history and explained what would happen next: lots of tests. When she finished, she asked me if there was anything else I wanted to talk about. “Just one more thing,” I said. “I’m Jewish.”

“Oh,” said Dr. O’Furniture. “I thought– with your name…” She then ordered more tests.

BRCA testing showed I am not a carrier for this mutation. (Well, at least not for BRCA1 or BRCA2. Researchers are still stirring the genetic soup.)

Young Jewish women with breast cancer should check out Sharsheret . Founded in November 2001,  the group addresses the genetic risk of developing breast cancer in Jewish women of Ashkenazi descent, pregnancy after diagnosis, parenting, relationships and intimacy, the role of religion in daily life with cancer, and the impact of breast cancer on religious ritual and spirituality.

Shalom (and begorra)! (Not to mention sayonara!)

*Not her real name…

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17 thoughts on “I Didn’t Realize O’Brien Was a Japanese Name…

  1. Suzanne says:

    I love this blog and am so happy that you are doing this.

  2. katherinembc says:

    Thanks for reading, Suze!

  3. Katie says:

    Ooooo…. joke!!!

    Q: What do you call an Irish husband who stays out all night?

    A: Paddy O’Furniture

  4. katherinembc says:

    Katie:
    Q: What do you call a sober Irishman on St. Patrick’s Day?
    A: A liar!

  5. Anna says:

    You are my new blogcrush Katherine. You make me feel like I’m cheating on the others. BRING IT SISTER!

  6. Katie says:

    I feel betrayed.

    (just kidding)

  7. katherinembc says:

    Hey Anna, we’ll have to have an open relationship…feel free to see other bloggers!

  8. Carey says:

    Love this piece! It brings up some of the very important things about BRCA.

    (EXCEPT- mentioning that a BRCA mutation can also lead to ovarian cancer. Sharsheret has started a program to reach out to these women as well)

    I too am Ashkenazic from mom and Irish from dad. But, in my case, the BRCA mutation does come from the Irish side. And, in my case, it did present first as ovarian cancer (and then breast cancer– aren’t I lucky!). Also important, my family’s mutation was newly “discovered” in 2005 thanks to some cousins of mine who participated in a study.

    Medical professionals I have discussed all this with tell me that they are sure that more “founder mutations” will be isolated in coming years. There are too many family clusters that are otherwise unexplained. SO– a “negative” result (which is really “no mutation detected”) might be out of date after a few years. One reason this is important to know is the new treatments (and even some older ones) that work or work better if the genetic mutation is present.

  9. katherinembc says:

    All excellent points, Casey! I have edited the above to reflect ovarian cancer risk. Thanks for commenting!

  10. katherinembc says:

    Sure thing! We’ll be a tag team…I’ll remind people to paint their toes teal for Ovarian Awareness in Sept. And you can remind people that National Metastatic Breast Cancer Awareness Day is Oct. 13.

    Metavivor is in Annapolis, maybe your groups can get together…

  11. Katherine,
    I enjoyed reading this post so much.

    From a doctor’s perspective it’s interesting because so often physicians stereotype patients based on a patient’s name or other factors like skin tone, either of which can be misleading in terms of what a person’s at risk for. This post is also about prejudice, and assumptions people make in non-medical settings.

    Take care, and keep writing!

  12. mkmustain says:

    Love this! I didn’t find out I was “Jewish” until I was diagnosed with BC in 2006 and was positive for the BRCA 1 and 2 genes. Twelve years of Catholic School and my mother is one of nineteen kids – we all thought we were straight from Ireland all the way. Turns out by way of Eastern Europe. I love your writing, I feel less alone through your journey. Thank you for sharing. Be well!

  13. katherinembc says:

    Thanks so much for reading!

    Slainte!

    Er, I mean L’chaim!

    Have a nice day!

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