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Meet a Rivkin Education Ambassador: Jessica Woods

The Rivkin Center’s Education Program

The Rivkin Center’s Education program provides free health education workshops. Rivkin Edu campus ambassadors are the feet-on-the-ground Rivkin Center representatives at universities across the west coast, helping set up workshops, identify opportunities to reach more students, and so much more.

Say hello to Jessica Woods, Rivkin Education ambassador at Arizona State University.

About Jessica

Where are you from? I am from Florence, Alabama. A super small town in Northern Alabama of about 39,000 people. I only had 50 people in my high school graduating class!

Where do you live now? I currently live in Phoenix, Arizona, and attend Arizona State Downtown.

What do you do for fun? I love to lift weights. Most of my free time, when it actually exists, is spent at the gym or at home hanging out with my three furbabies. I also enjoy playing video games. I spend most of my time studying and learning that I like to “not think” during my off-time activities.

What is your favorite mantra? Mold your career around your lifestyle, not your lifestyle around your career.

What is your favorite drink? I love Pinot Noir!

What advice would you give your younger self? Stop worrying so much about what other people think or do. Be true to your convictions regardless of the status quo.

What are you most proud of? I am proud of my independence. I am a first-generation college student and one of the only individuals in my family to ever live on their own, make their own money, and be generally satisfied with life. I come from a poor, working-class family and “getting out” took a lot of hard-work and sacrifice. It was against the “norm” in my hometown to pursue something other than getting married and having kids. All my current success is directly related to my decision to join the military at 18. This decision opened so many doors for me.

Where is your favorite place to travel? In 2016, I went to Iceland. It was the most beautiful place I have ever been. It’s this small island with so much topography. Icebergs and active volcanoes, the greenery. It was absolutely breathtaking. I hope to go back someday.

What is one thing people would be surprised to know about you? A lot of people seem surprised when I tell them two things: I am an only child and that I am a veteran. Not exactly sure why, but those are the two things I get most questions about.

Where do you go to find inspiration? I wouldn’t necessarily name a place that gives me inspiration per se, but just by striking up a conversation with someone, you can learn so much about the world. Everyone is on a personal journey and we all have different backgrounds. Hearing about individuals like myself who have overcome their past keeps me going even when I feel burned out. Other people’s journeys are inspirational to me.

Where’s your happy place? Definitely the gym. It’s the one place where I am not obligated to speak to anyone. I put on my headphones, I work on my body, and I can focus 100% on me. This is where all my frustrations from the day are handled.

Who is your role model/mentor? Dana Linn Bailey is a bodybuilder from Pennsylvania. She was the first Ms. Physique Olympia which is one of the highest awards in bodybuilding one can attain. Obviously, many see bodybuilding as a “man’s only world” and she broke through. She had to deal with a lot of negativity throughout her career. Name calling/shaming, she was too muscular, too manly, but she took all that negativity and became a champion. She now owns and operates 4 different multimillion businesses. She’s married and has an amazing supportive partner. She has been very open about all of her personal struggles dealing with people’s comments versus her self-esteem. I can relate because I have been in male-dominated careers my whole life. Obviously, my father raised me since my mother died when I was young and being in the military, I was the only female working with 20 other men. Surgical medicine, which is my career goal, is also a male-dominated career. It’s amazing and inspiring to see women overcoming this idea of how they should look and/or what they should be doing.

How Jessica got involved

What inspired you to get involved with Rivkin Edu? My mother passed away from breast cancer when I was just 9 years old. Additionally, I learned that I was BRCA 2 positive and decided to have a prophylactic bilateral mastectomy at the young age of 24. I want to share this journey with other women who may find themselves in a similar position in order to empower them.

What is your favorite memory from a Rivkin Edu party? I just finished my first 3 Rivkin Edu Parties and I would say the best part would be when one of the attendee’s eyes light up when they’ve learned something new about their bodies or cancer. Knowledge is power.

How can people help support someone going through cancer? I would say be focused on listening instead of giving advice. Cancer affects people differently. Be open, free from judgment, and let them vent. Let them be angry and let them cry, let them scream if necessary. Don’t respond with calm down or “everything will be okay.” Cancer is scary, it’s real. Let them get everything out emotionally. This a natural part of the grieving process.

What is the most important thing you want attendees to learn at a Rivkin Edu party? How to get checked and tested.

How many Rivkin Edu parties have you hosted/attended? I have hosted 3 so far!

Do you have any events coming up? I just finished my first 3 parties at ASU, but I am excited for the coming spring semester and I already have interested organizations.

Learn more about the Rivkin Education program

Want to learn more about becoming a campus ambassador? Apply here.

Talk to your Family

Talking to your family and identifying cancer in your family tree can be a good indicator of your health risks. Download our Family Tree Worksheet here.  Be sure to include yourself, children, parents, siblings, aunts, uncles, and grandparents.

Get Educated

Know your body and be proactive about your health. Learn about your breast and ovarian health. Learn about the risk factors and signs & symptoms for breast and ovarian cancer.

Trusted Healthcare Provider

Having a relationship with a health care provider you know and trust is one of the most important decisions you’ll make about your health care. Click here to find a provider

Higher Risk in the Ashkenazi Jewish Population

In the general population, around 1 in 400 people carry a BRCA1 or BRCA2 mutation. People of Ashkenazi Jewish ancestry have a 1 in 40 chance of carrying a BRCA mutation, making them 10 times as likely to carry a BRCA mutation as someone in the general population. Whether you’re a man or a woman, if you have a BRCA mutation then there is a 50% chance of passing the mutation on to your children, whether they are boys or girls. It’s important to note that these mutations significantly increase risk, but are not a guarantee a person will get cancer.

Why is the Ashkenazi Jewish population at higher risk?

Over 90% of the BRCA mutations found in the Jewish community are one of three “founder mutations”. A founder mutation is a specific gene mutation in a population that was founded by a small group of ancestors that were geographically or culturally isolated. Because the population was isolated, the rate of founder mutations in descendants is much higher than it would be if the population were larger and co-mingling with more genetically diverse populations. A large expansion in the population caused the current high frequency of the mutations in the Ashkenazi Jewish population. If you are of Ashkenazi Jewish ancestry, the chance of carrying a BRCA gene mutation compared to the general population is increased tenfold. BRCA mutations can be passed down from either your mother’s or father’s side, and may be associated with any of the following cancers:
  • Breast cancer
  • Ovarian cancer, fallopian tube, peritoneal cancer
  • Male breast cancer
  • Prostate cancer
  • Pancreatic cancer
  • Colon Cancer

Ready to take action? Knowledge is power. Take this short quiz to be proactive about your health.

Genes 101

Our bodies are made of many tiny building blocks called cells. Our cells contain a copy of our genome – all of the DNA genetic code we inherited from our parents. Our genome is organized into 46 chromosomes, 23 inherited from mom and 23 from dad. Each chromosome has hundreds or thousands of genes. Each gene has the instructions to make a protein that may control the structure or function of cells, can determine many things including how tall we are or the color of our eyes. Genes also contain instructions for many things inside of us that we cannot see, such as how our bones are formed or how our heart works. Each gene is made up of molecules called nucleic acids (A, T, C, and G). The specific sequence of the nucleic acids holds the instructions that control all the components and their functions in cells.

If the DNA sequence is changed, like a spelling mistake, the instructions may not make sense. The technical term for this change is “mutation,” meaning there is a change to the usual genetic code that may change the instructions stored in the gene. A mutation in a gene that repairs DNA damage or controls cell growth can increase the risk of developing cancer.

Sporadic vs Hereditary Cancers:

Ovarian and breast cancer can be either sporadic or hereditary. Sporadic cancers make up the vast majority (85-90%) of ovarian and breast cancers and are not associated with family history of either cancer or inherited cancer-associated mutations. Sporadic cancers arise from genetic mutations acquired in some cells of the body by events part of normal metabolism and environmental factors. This type of cancer can happen to anyone. Most acquired gene mutations are not shared among relatives or passed on to children.

Hereditary (also known as inherited, or familial) cancers are those that occur due to genetic mutations that are inherited from mom or dad. Other blood relatives may also share these same gene mutations. Parents give one copy of each gene to their children. If a parent has a genetic mutation in a gene, each of their children have a 50% chance of inheriting that mutation. Therefore, even in families with hereditary cancer, not all family members inherit the mutation that is causing cancer, and their risk of cancer is similar to the average person in the general population. Individuals who are suspected to have a family history with high incidence of ovarian, breast, and other cancers may be offered genetic testing to try to find the specific genetic mutation that may put them at risk. Importantly, individuals who do not have a known genetic mutation but have high incidence of ovarian, breast, or other cancers in their families are still considered at higher risk for developing those cancers.

Hereditary cancers often occur at an earlier age than the sporadic form of the same cancer, so experts often recommend starting cancer screening at a younger age for individuals at high risk for hereditary cancer. Hereditary cancers can also be more aggressive than the sporadic form of the same cancer. Individuals who have inherited a gene mutation may be at a higher risk for more than one type of cancer.

BRCA 1 and BRCA 2: Most Common hereditary breast and ovarian cancer

The genes that are most commonly involved in hereditary breast and ovarian cancer (HBOC) are BRCA1 and BRCA2. These genes are named for their link to breast (BR) cancer (CA), but they are also linked to ovarian cancer risk as well as other cancers. Both women and men can inherit mutations in these HBOC genes. BRCA1 and BRCA2 are tumor suppressor genes that have a usual role in our body of providing instructions on repairing DNA damage and preventing cancer. When a family has an inherited mutation in BRCA1 or BRCA2, this leads to an increase in cancer risk. Not every man or woman who has inherited a mutation in the BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene will develop cancer, but people who have a mutation do have a significanlty increased chance of developing cancer, particularly cancer of the breasts or ovaries.

While breast and ovarian cancers are the most common cancers diagnosed in people with BRCA1 and BRCA2 mutations, the risk of some other cancers is also increased. Men with BRCA1 and BRCA2 mutations have a higher risk of early-onset prostate cancer than men without mutations in either gene. Other cancers seen at increased rates, particularly in individuals with BRCA2 mutations, include pancreatic cancer and melanoma. Researchers are continuing to find new genes that are involved in hereditary breast and/or ovarian cancer so it is important to follow up with a genetic counselor on a regular basis if hereditary breast and ovarian cancer is likely in your family.

Talk to your family about your health history and take the Assess Your Risk quiz here