Jewish Journal

Chains of Support

Sharsheret sets up links between young Jewish breast cancer survivors.

by Julie G Fax

Posted on Oct. 10, 2002 at 8:00 pm

Two days after her radical breast cancer surgery last May, Missy Stein hit that moment where all the emotional and physical implications of her condition came crashing in on her.

But then she remembered Sari Abrams' words.

In a phone call before the surgery, Abrams, who had a similar surgery four years before, had warned Stein that there would be one day that would be tougher and bleaker than any before it. Just get through that day, Abrams told her, and you'll be fine.

"It was really so helpful having the preparation and knowing what was coming, so I didn't have that fear of the unknown going in," said Stein, a 36-year-old mother of five from Aberdeen, N.J.

Stein and Abrams found each other through Sharsheret (Hebrew for chain) a year-old organization that sets up links between young Jewish women with breast cancer so they can offer support and knowledge gained through experience.

"I strongly believe in the positive effect of social support on the outcome for cancer patients," said Abrams, who was diagnosed at 30 and again at 33, and had a baby boy when she was 37. "It's so helpful to know that others are going through the same thing and have gone through it and survived and come out of it OK. I feel like this is my part in this chain, being part of the so-called sisterhood of breast cancer survivors."

The match between Stein and Abrams is one that Sharsheret founder Rochelle Shoretz holds up as a remarkable success. Not only did the two have similar diagnoses and treatments, but both were the wives of rabbis.

Abrams, the wife of B'nai David Judea's Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky, answered many of Stein's questions about the surgery and helped quell some of Stein's fears about how to tell the community while keeping some measure of privacy when so many people wanted to help. The rabbis also spoke directly with each other.

Shoretz, an Orthodox mother of two, came up with the idea of Sharsheret after she was diagnosed with breast cancer at 28, when she was a clerk to Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg.

"When I was diagnosed, one of the first things I wanted to do was to speak to someone my age with my background who was experiencing what I was experiencing, and it was very difficult for me to find another young Jewish woman with whom to speak," said Shoretz, who lives in Teaneck, N.J. Eventually friends put her in touch with Lauryn Weiser, who now serves as Sharsheret's link coordinator.

"We talked about everything from the side effects of chemotherapy to community support to coping with parents and children and husbands. I used her as a resource for everything I was about to experience," Shoretz said.

Doing more research, Shoretz found that while there were organizations that linked cancer patients with each other, mostly based on diagnosis, none met the specific needs and experiences of young Jewish women.

"We ask women who call in what their biggest concerns are, what their biggest fears are and what they would like to speak to someone about and we do our best to find them a match," Shoretz said. "Some women just want to draw religious strength from one another."

Observant women might share experiences relating to mikvah or sexuality. Single women might want to talk about dating after mastectomy. Young mothers may talk about taking care of the children while on chemo. Some callers have been women who don't have breast cancer but are carriers of the genetic mutation found in many Ashkenazim that can portend breast cancer.

About 60 women, from Chasidic to unaffiliated, have been paired up through Sharsheret so far, and the organization has fielded more than 500 phone calls from people and other organizations who want to find out more.

In its first year Sharsheret raised and spent about $100,000. Aside from a recently hired part-time administrator, the entire staff is volunteer.

The organization has come to occupy an important place in the cancer community. Early on Shoretz formed an alliance with the American Cancer Society, which she has spoken to on several occasions about Jewish issues. Sharsheret is currently featured on the Web site of UCLA breast specialist Dr. Susan Love (susanlovemd.com). This month in New York, Sharsheret is sponsoring its first conference, a symposium on fertility and cancer held at Cornell Medical School and co-sponsored by the American Cancer Society, the Cornell Institute for Reproductive Medicine and Hadassah.

At the American Cancer Society's Making Strides walkathon, Sharsheret has a 100-person team walking in Central Park. This month, Breast Cancer Awareness Month, Shoretz is busy responding to an upsurge in media interest in breast cancer among young women, who face much different prognoses and emotional issues than older women.

About 250,000 women under the age of 40 currently are living with breast cancer, and about 1,300 a year die. Among young women, the disease is often more aggressive, and often caught at a more advanced stage, than among older women.

Missy Stein, whose mother is also undergoing treatment for breast cancer, said Sharsheret's focus on young women has been important to her.

"We're all young people with, God willing, long lives ahead of us, and there is a vitality and upbeat attitude that I found in Sharsheret over and over that makes it an important organization for younger women," Stein said. "To have the opportunity to walk with each other this whole crazy journey is a wonderful thing."

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