Sometimes great endeavors begin with one person asking questions.
Such was the case with Sharsheret, a national breast cancer support group for Jewish women, that had its humble beginnings in 2001 when a rising 28-year-old attorney named Rochelle Shoretz was diagnosed with breast cancer and began searching for help in the Jewish community.
“What she found in 2001 was that organizations were very happy to connect her with grandmothers and great aunts to talk about her diagnosis,” recalled Sharsheret Executive Director Elana Silber. “But her questions were very different. She had questions about caring for her children, about fertility, about balancing career and cancer, about intimacy, and she really couldn’t find anyone like her.”
A friend connected Rochelle with Lauryn, another woman with breast cancer who also had young children.
“Lauryn helped Rochelle through the beginning of her cancer journey,” Silber said, “and as Rochelle was going through treatment and chemotherapy, they looked at each other and said, ‘We can’t be the only two young Jewish women with breast cancer. Let’s start a peer support network. And if we can help five women a year, that would be a success.’”
Fast forward 15 years, and Sharsheret has grown exponentially from a small peer support network to 12 national programs helping more than 55,000 women, families, healthcare professionals, community leaders and students.
“We’ve grown quite a bit and have established ourselves as the go-to resource for young Jewish women facing breast cancer, as well as women and families facing ovarian cancer,” Silber said.
As to the organization’s name, Silber explained, “Sharsheret is Hebrew for ‘chain.’ It symbolizes the connections that we make. Everyone who connects to Sharsheret becomes a link in the chain.”
Beyond its roots as an alliance between young Jewish women, there is a strong link between its breast cancer focus and Judaism. “People often ask, ‘What’s Jewish about breast cancer?’ Our first response is genetics,” Silber said. “One in 40 Jews of Ashkenazi descent, both men and women, carries a BRCA gene mutation that significantly increases the risk of hereditary breast, ovarian and related cancers in Jewish families," Sibler said.
And although Sharsheret’s expertise is in young women in Jewish families, the group’s reach extends to women and families of all backgrounds. “There are women who may not identify as Jews participating in our programs,” Silber said.
“At Sharsheret, we’re more than a website,” Silber said. “You might find us online, but we have trained, skilled professionals who work one-on-one with those who reach out for support. (Our) team includes three social workers, a psychotherapist and a genetic counselor to speak individually with women, and all of our programs are customized to the needs of the women we serve.”
Sharsheret’s support programs include:
- Peer Support Network, connecting women newly diagnosed or at high-risk of developing breast cancer
- Embrace, supporting women living with advanced breast cancer
- Genetics for Life, addressing hereditary breast and ovarian cancer
- Thriving Again, providing individualized support, education and survivorship plans for young breast cancer survivors
- Busy Box, for young parents facing breast cancer
- Best Face Forward, addressing the cosmetic side effects of treatment
- Family Focus, providing resources and support for caregivers and family members
- Ovarian Cancer Program, providing tailored resources and support for young women and families facing ovarian cancer
- Sharsheret Supports, developing local support groups and programs
Sharsheret also offers the following education and outreach programs:
- Health Care Symposia on issues unique to younger women facing breast cancer
- Sharsheret on Campus, outreach and education to students on campus
- Sharsheret Educational Resource Booklet Series, culturally-relevant publications for women and their families, and healthcare professionals
The organization also extends its community outreach with activities that engage local students. “Feb. 10 was Sharsheret Pink Day,” Silber said. “We were in nearly 100 middle schools, high schools, and some college campuses all across the country. … Sharsheret materials were sent to every school so students could bring them home for their families.”
Even with all of its many accomplishments and offerings, Sharsheret is not resting on its laurels moving into the future.
“Sharsheret just completed a five-year strategic plan in April 2015 that focuses on growth and expansion,” Silber said. “It goes hand-in-hand with the grant we received from the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) to amplify and scale up our programs. Sharsheret’s headquarters are in Northern New Jersey. We have a regional office in South Florida. We will open another regional office in Los Angeles later this summer. With this we will be able to offer later hours to meet the needs of the women who are living on the west coast.”
Beyond those ambitious plans, Sharsheret will continue to focus on what it does best: strengthening its “chain” of support and service.
“Everything is free, everything is confidential, everything is convenient,” Silber said. “Our goal is to ensure that no woman will have to face breast cancer or ovarian cancer alone.”
For further information, call toll-free at 866-474-2774 or go to www.sharsheret.org