Providing the Missing Link

providingthemissinglink

How one activist is helping Jewish women with breast cancer connect with one another.

Rochelle Shoretz was diagnosed with breast cancer at 28 years old. Before her diagnosis, she did not know any young women with breast cancer and struggled to find someone close in age with whom to speak. There were offers to talk with great aunts and grandmothers, but her issues were different from those of an older woman. Then, a neighbor told her about a young woman raising three children and undergoing treatment for breast cancer. Rochelle befriended this woman and credits her for helping her through treatment and recovery. It also inspired Rochelle to create Sharsheret (Hebrew for “chain”), an organization aimed at meeting the needs of women of all Jewish backgrounds diagnosed with or facing the threat of breast or ovarian cancer. We sat down with Rochelle to find out more about her organization, which is now serving thousands of Jewish women and families.

What has been the most challenging aspect of setting up this organization?

Spreading the word about Sharsheret’s programs across the country has been our greatest challenge. We provide critical services to Jewish women and families, and our goal is to ensure that these programs and services are accessible to every person diagnosed with or facing the risk of developing breast cancer or ovarian cancer.

One of the goals of the organization is to “provide culturally sensitive support for Jewish women.” Could you tell me more about why it is necessary for Jewish women to have their own support organization?

Jewish women facing breast cancer have unique concerns. Sharsheret provides culturally sensitive support and resources tailored to address those specific needs. One in 40 Jewish individuals of Ashkenazi descent carries a gene mutation (BRCA) that may trigger breast or ovarian cancer. For women who carry a BRCA mutation, the likelihood of developing breast cancer may be as high as 80 percent, and as high as 44 percent for developing ovarian cancer. Jewish women facing cancer grapple with many issues, including the role of Jewish spirituality in daily life with cancer and in healing; religious ritual affected by breast cancer treatment (i.e., wig-wearing and the use of the mikveh/ritual bath post-surgery or during chemotherapy); the cultural norms surrounding dating, marriage, and fertility; and concerns for privacy in what can be a tight-knit community.

What role can Jewish spirituality play in daily life for women with cancer and in healing?

Many Jewish women facing breast cancer have found support in speaking to rabbis and Jewish communal leaders about incorporating spirituality, Jewish tradition, and ritual into their lives as they cope with the emotional and physical impact of breast cancer. Some women naturally look to Jewish tradition for wisdom and comfort. Prayer, healing services, and meditation can be helpful during treatment. Preparing for and celebrating Jewish holidays or other rituals with family and friends can create feelings of warmth and security during a time of life that may feel unstable. Hosting a Seudat Hoda’ah (celebration of thanks) can mark a closure to treatment and a beginning to healing. Women who may not have felt connected to Judaism before may be motivated by illness to search Jewish tradition for meaning and guidance.

What are one or two of the biggest religious rituals that are impacted by breast cancer treatment?

1. Wearing a wig or a hat—generally signs of marriage in the Orthodox community—can complicate already difficult emotions for those who have lost their hair during chemotherapy treatment, particularly for single women and for those who would normally choose not to cover their hair.

2. The prospect of using the mikveh (as a healing ritual or a religious ritual) for the first time after surgery or during chemotherapy treatment can be accompanied by anxiety and fear. Some women feel embarrassed and concerned about the mikveh attendant’s reaction upon seeing their surgical scars or noticing that they have lost their hair during chemotherapy. For other women, using the mikveh for the first time after diagnosis can mark the beginning of healing.

You mention that your organization pays careful attention to the concern for privacy in what can be a tight-knit community. How do you address that?

Confidentiality is the cornerstone of Sharsheret’s programs. All calls are completely confidential, and women may remain anonymous or use a pseudonym. For those who would prefer not to receive Sharsheret envelopes in the mail, we arrange to ship materials in plain white envelopes. We also accommodate requests from those who would prefer not to speak with peer supporters in their own community.

Tell me about The Link Program, which connects women newly diagnosed or at high risk of developing breast cancer with others who share similar diagnoses and experiences.

Sharsheret has become THE Jewish breast cancer organization and is well respected as such in the Jewish and cancer communities. Sharsheret began as a peer support network that paired young women of all Jewish backgrounds, newly diagnosed or at increased risk of developing breast cancer, with volunteers who share their personal and medical experiences. Our mission is premised on the notion that, often times, women facing breast cancer want to reach out to others who share not only their diagnoses, but also their life background. By the time women diagnosed with or facing breast cancer are prepared to reach out for support, many already have a medical team in place—an oncologist to whom they can ask treatment questions, a surgeon to address their medical concerns. They seek a place to turn for guidance, reassurance, and a sense of community within the community.

Can you say more about the programs you created?

In the last 10 years, Sharsheret has grown significantly and now offers women and families facing breast cancer 10 national programs—what we refer to as a continuum of care for the Jewish community, addressing the needs of those who are concerned about the risk of breast cancer in their family, those who have been diagnosed with the disease and are undergoing treatment, and those who face issues of survivorship or recurrence. Since Sharsheret’s founding, we have responded to more than 19,000 breast cancer inquiries, involved more than 1,000 peer supporters, and presented over 200 educational programs nationwide.

Below is a list of our 10 national programs:

The Link Programs

  • Peer Support Network: connecting women newly diagnosed or at high risk of developing breast cancer one-on-one with others who share similar diagnoses and experiences
  • Embrace: supporting women living with advanced breast cancer
  • Genetics for Life: addressing hereditary breast and ovarian cancer
  • Busy Box: for young parents facing breast cancer
  • Best Face Forward: addressing the cosmetic side effects of treatment
  • Sharsheret Supports: developing local support groups and programs
  • Family Focus: providing resources and support for caregivers and family memberEducation and Outreach Programs
  • Health Care Symposia: addressing issues unique to younger women facing breast cancer
  • Sharsheret on Campus: providing outreach to students on campus
  • Facing Breast Cancer as a Jewish Woman: an educational resource booklet series

What’s next for Sharsheret?

In the wake of remarkable demand, Sharsheret is expanding its reach to address the needs of Jewish women facing ovarian cancer, a disease that significantly impacts Jewish families that carry mutations in the BRCA1 or BRCA2 genes.

We have also launched various social media initiatives, including:

“Text For Your Next” mobile campaign: encouraging women to text Sharsheret to receive reminders, via text message, to schedule their annual breast cancer screening appointments

Sharsheret Blog: www.sharsheret.blogspot.com

Facebook: www.facebook.com/sharsheret.org

Twitter: www.twitter.com/Sharsheret

Additionally, we have increased our national outreach efforts and are partnering with individuals and Jewish organizations in cities across the country to develop local breast cancer support groups and programs.

For more information about Sharsheret’s national programs and services, please visit www.sharsheret.org, call 866-474-2774, or email info@sharsheret.org.

About the Author

rshoretzRochelle Shoretz
Rochelle Shoretz, a two-time breast cancer survivor, founded Sharsheret following her own diagnosis at age 28 in order to connect young Jewish women fighting breast cancer. For her pioneering efforts in establishing Sharsheret, Ms. Shoretz was named a “Woman to Watch” by Jewish Woman Magazine and a Yoplait Champion in the Fight Against Breast Cancer. She was also honored by the Philadelphia Affiliate of Susan G. Komen for the Cure and the Israel Cancer Research Foundation. She is a board member and graduate of the Joshua Venture Group fellowship of young leaders and the Berrie Fellows Leadership Program of the UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey. Ms. Shoretz is a graduate of the American Association of Cancer Research Scientist-Survivor Program. The mother of two, Ms. Shoretz lives in Teaneck, New Jersey, with her sons Shlomo and Dovid.

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