Your email is not valid
Recipient's email is not valid
Submit Close

Your email has been sent.

Click here to send another


On the Cancer Gene Trail

How Roman Catholics of Native American and Spanish descent became carriers of the deadly breast-cancer gene long associated with Jews

Print Email
(Illustration Tablet Magazine; source images Wikimedia Commons and Shutterstock)
Related Content

The Things We Carry

What happens when your inheritance includes a life-threatening genetic mutation?

In 1999, a young woman in Colorado named Shonnie Medina died of breast cancer. Tests revealed that she carried a gene mutation commonly associated with Jews—yet Medina was a Hispano, meaning that her ancestry was both Native American and Spanish, with no known Jewish background. Other family members similarly turned out to be carriers of this potentially deadly gene; some have died from or been diagnosed with breast or ovarian cancer.

How this clan of Roman Catholic Hispanos became carriers of this mutation is the subject of a new book by Jeff Wheelwright: The Wandering Gene and the Indian Princess: Race, Religion, and DNA tells Medina’s tragic tale as well as the story of how one specific genetic marker could have made its way from Ancient Babylonia to the contemporary American southwest. Wheelwright joins Vox Tablet host Sara Ivry to talk about the resilience of the breast-cancer gene, and how the Jewish Diaspora can be traced by following the appearance of the gene around the world. [Running time: 17:07.] 

Print Email

Daily rate: $2
Monthly rate: $18
Yearly rate: $180

Tablet is committed to bringing you the best, smartest, most enlightening and entertaining reporting and writing on Jewish life, all free of charge. We take pride in our community of readers, and are thrilled that you choose to engage with us in a way that is both thoughtful and thought-provoking. But the Internet, for all of its wonders, poses challenges to civilized and constructive discussion, allowing vocal—and, often, anonymous—minorities to drag it down with invective (and worse). Starting today, then, we are asking people who'd like to post comments on the site to pay a nominal fee—less a paywall than a gesture of your own commitment to the cause of great conversation. All proceeds go to helping us bring you the ambitious journalism that brought you here in the first place.

Readers can still interact with us free of charge via Facebook, Twitter, and our other social media channels, or write to us at Each week, we’ll select the best letters and publish them in a new letters to the editor feature on the Scroll.

We hope this new largely symbolic measure will help us create a more pleasant and cultivated environment for all of our readers, and, as always, we thank you deeply for your support.

Rocky says:

The gene was probably carried by some of the Jewish conversos who settled in the American southwest (especially New Mexico) starting in the early 16th century when the entire region was part of New Spain.

More recently, Marin County, CA became a hot bed of breast cancer (on a per capita basis). It also happens to be the most affluent county in the state (on a per capita basis) and the county with the highest percentage of Jews. I used to think that the county’s high breast cancer rate had something to do with its affluence or lifestyle. Maybe it’s a Jewish thing after all.

Jocky says:

From the 1st paragraph the answer is clear
Medina is a Jewish name that indicate that the family originated from the “Cristiano Nuevo”/ Marranos (Anusim). There are papers by Karl Skorecki and if I recall Hermona Soreq that trail Jews back to Iraq (Aram Naharyim the birth place of Avraham Avinu.
At least skorecki use markers on Y chromosome from Cohen/Levi/Israel.
Studies also proved that the genetic distance between Jews is closer than the one between Jews and Gentiles in their countries they resided for 100s of years (i.e an ethipian jew is closer two a polish jew that to their country’e mates).
Also demonstrated that the closest group to the jews are the palestinians. Not the majority that arrived to Israel in the 19th and 20th century from all over along with the Jews; those who rely resided there for 100ws of years. The assumption is that this ‘real’ palestinians, are hews that preferred to become muslims than to leave the land, when the muslims 1st won parts of the area

babawawa says:

I agree with Jockey for most of what he says, except Ethopian Jews. They do not have DNA similar to European or Sephardic Jews, unfortunately, which means they are not from the tribe of Dan. Their origins are not quite clear, which is why they were initially required to immerse in mikvahs when they came to Israel. The lack of DNA link was only realized just recently.

George says:

Ethiopian Jews are genetically identical to non-Jewish Ethiopians. They are indigenous Ethiopians who at some time in the recent past, adopted various forms of Jewish worship

George says:

The groups closest to Jews in their DNA are the Kurds and Armenians. Arabs who have a demonstrated long period of residency in Israel are also close but not as closely matching as the Kurds and Armenians.

George says:

Jews and their neighbors: The Middle East

With Jews looking increasingly like a relatively cohesive population largely of Middle Eastern origin, the logical next question is how close a genetic relationship exists with other Middle Eastern groups. A study of Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs published in 2000 by Israeli researchers revealed what the authors described as “a relatively recent common ancestry.” It was greeted with euphoric proclamations that Palestinians and Jews are “brothers.” A closer look at the details of the study gives reason for pause.

The researchers compared Jews and Palestinians to a sample of people from Wales. When compared with the Welsh, Jews and Palestinians did indeed look similar, as they probably would if contrasted with Trobriand Islanders. When the same research team conducted a follow-up study comparing Jews and Palestinian Arabs to Kurds, Armenians, Turks, Syrians, Jordanians, Lebanese and Beduin, they saw a very different picture. Although all Middle Eastern populations have broad similarities, “Jews were found to be more closely related to groups in the north of the Fertile Crescent (Kurds, Turks and Armenians) than to their Arab neighbors.”

This could mean that Jews, Kurds, Armenians and Anatolian Turks all carry the genetic markers of ancient indigenous populations of the Fertile Crescent, while Palestinian Arabs and Beduin may largely descend from the Arab conquerors, with their distinctive genetic signifiers. Genetics may eventually provide answers to such questions as what proportion of Palestinian ancestry arrived via earlier or later migrations. So far we have only partial explanations.

One of the most compelling studies compared the small Samaritan population in Israel with Druse, Palestinians and Jews from various parts of the Diaspora. The results appear to corroborate the traditional Samaritan belief that they have lived in Samaria since antiquity and are closely related to the Jews.’

My late father live in Santa Fe NM. He told us of similar stories of Spanish people lighting candles of Friday night and Stars of David on tomb stones in their cemetery.This occured before the Cancer gene was discussed. They thought these people came to the south during the Spanish exile of Jews in 1492.

Seth Cohen says:


This is not a new story.
see for example the following books: New Mexico’s Crypto-Jews: Image and Memory
Out From Hiding: Evidences of Sephardic Roots among Latinos
Remnants of Crypto-Jews Among Hispanic Americans

Those Hispanics aren’t Hispanic they are Jews pure and simple.  Read the history of chocolate or Jewish Pirates of the Caribbean. You can follow the Jews to the new world and the defeat of the Spanish Armada based on their help to England.  
So now what should those CRYPTO Catholics do?  They should return to being Jews and skip the fascade of Catholicism.  It’s a dirty, sexist, child molesting religion in our time.  And a killer of 9 million European women before they began killing Jews.  It’s a bloody religion dripping the blood of any people who stood in their way of world domination.

Joe Poppy says:

So if somebody comes from a lineage that has practiced c certain religion for generations and discovers that more ancient ancestors practiced another religion this means that they should convert to their oldest ancestors’ religion? Does this apply to persons whose ancestors practiced religions other than Judaism, or only people with Jewish ancestors? Catholicism has certainly had its ugly past and more recent ugly transgressions, but to label it in such broad strokes is inconsiderate of kind present day practicing Catholics. Your comment is simplistic, Laeh.


Your comment may be no longer than 2,000 characters, approximately 400 words. HTML tags are not permitted, nor are more than two URLs per comment. We reserve the right to delete inappropriate comments.

Thank You!

Thank you for subscribing to the Tablet Magazine Daily Digest.
Please tell us about you.

On the Cancer Gene Trail

How Roman Catholics of Native American and Spanish descent became carriers of the deadly breast-cancer gene long associated with Jews

More on Tablet:

Herman Wouk’s Fire Island Synagogue

By Jas Chana — The centenarian author formed an Orthodox congregation in his home in 1952. It thrives today.