MILWAUKEE COUNTY – Women of Ashkenazic Jewish heritage are more likely to get breast cancer, but some old research has indicated the North Shore is a “hot spot” beyond what even genetics can explain.
Today – about 20 years later – it’s still unclear as to why.
The tale starts with Dr. Sheldon Wasserman, an OBGYN currently in private practice at Prospect Medical Commons, 2311 N. Prospect Ave., of Columbia St. Mary’s. Wasserman is also a Milwaukee County Board member representing Shorewood, the east side of Milwaukee and much of Whitefish Bay, and attends services with Chabad of the East Side.
Back then, Wasserman was a state assemblyman representing the North Shore, when he was invited to meet with a group of women in a local home. “They wanted to sit down with me and they wanted to talk about breast cancer in the North Shore,” he now recalls. “Because I was a state legislator and a doctor, I put two and two together,” he said, referring to what at first looked like more breast cancer on the North Shore simply because of more Ashkenazic Jewish heritage there.
“I really give credit to the women who got me started,” he said, adding with some laughter, “When an older group of Jewish women tells a younger Jewish guy what to do, you do it.”
So Wasserman called Dr. Patrick Remington, who was a state epidemiologist at the time. Wasserman recalls that Remington was intrigued by the issue and went on to write a report in the 1990s that found higher incidences of breast cancer in the North Shore – beyond what Ashkenazic Jewish heritage alone could explain.
In January of 1997, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported the study’s findings, that breast cancer cases and deaths were significantly higher in Shorewood, Whitefish Bay, Fox Point, Bayside, River Hills and parts of Milwaukee’s east side than in Wisconsin as a whole. The analysis covered 1989 through 1994 and ZIP codes 53211 and 53217, according to the newspaper.
“I’m alarmed, as a doctor and a legislator,” Wasserman told the newspaper at the time.
Ashkenazic Jews are Jews of European ancestry, accounting for most Jews in the United States and Wisconsin. Milwaukee’s North Shore area is where 52 percent of Southeastern Wisconsin’s 25,800 Jews live, according to Milwaukee Jewish Federation’s 2011 Jewish Community Study of Greater Milwaukee and its 2015 revision. But Remington told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel in 1997 that genes didn’t explain the whole trend.
“We know in our population we have higher rates of breast cancer,” Wasserman told the Chronicle. “Even taking into account Jewish women, we (in the North Shore) still have higher rates.”
“The big question is why,” said Wasserman, noting that when the issue was studied, nothing panned out as a clear cause.
“There was no detectible smoking gun,” Wasserman remembers.
He’s not aware of any additional study of Ashkenazic Jewish heritage and breast cancer in Wisconsin since the 1990s.
He did seek to offer some reassurance: “The North Shore communities are wonderful and I don’t think anybody should be fearful of living there at this time.”
Carrie Riccobono, a clinical nurse specialist who is vice president of the Wisconsin Breast Cancer Coalition, said it would be easier to study cancer hot spots today, like the one found in the North Shore so many years ago, if statewide data collection was better. The Wisconsin Cancer Reporting System, which is operated by the state Department of Health Services, needs more funding, Riccobono said.
Incomplete and late data is causing significant problems for local, regional and statewide health systems, public health departments and cancer researchers in Wisconsin, according to the Coalition. It reports in a position paper that standards for timely reporting are not met on a consistent basis; therefore, planning and addressing cancer is compromised.
Additional funding for the Wisconsin Cancer Reporting System “is an objective in the current Comprehensive Cancer Control Plan, and indeed, more funds would advance our registry objectives,” said Jennifer Miller, spokeswoman for the Wisconsin Department of Health Services in an email. “However, it is an exaggeration to characterize widely available WCRS data as incomplete and the cause for significant problems for health systems and health departments. Our standard cancer surveillance data are of high quality and are freely available for needs of cancer programs in Wisconsin.”
She also noted that the WCRS is nationally recognized by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta as a registry of excellence.
Miller acknowledged that the Wisconsin Cancer Reporting System “did provide the Zip code level data and information on data limitations” for the old North Shore breast cancer study, but said that “the analysis was done by a former employee, Dr. Pat Remington, and other (state) analysts, not by any current WCRS staff, so we cannot comment on the findings.”
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