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Passing of Evelyn Lauder marked by Jewish activists against breast cancer

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Evelyn Lauder, who pioneered the pink ribbon as the symbol of breast cancer awareness, died of ovarian cancer. (evelynlauder.com)

Evelyn Lauder, who pioneered the pink ribbon as the symbol of breast cancer awareness, died of ovarian cancer. (evelynlauder.com)

WASHINGTON (JTA) — It’s hard to find a Jewish woman without a direct connection to breast cancer. With nearly one in 40 women of Ashkenazi descent possessing a genetic mutation that greatly increases their chances of contracting the disease, breast cancer, like Tay-Sachs and Gaucher’s, is a disproportionately Jewish disease.

So it’s little surprise that the passing this weekend of Evelyn Lauder, the refugee from Nazi-occupied Europe credited with inventing the pink ribbon — the global symbol of breast cancer awareness — took on a special Jewish significance.

“All across the breast cancer world, we are feeling the loss of Evelyn,” said Rochelle Shoretz, founder and executive director of Sharsheret, an organization that offers support to young Jewish women and their families facing breast cancer. “There is not a woman who has faced breast cancer or will face it who has not been impacted by her work.”

Born in Vienna in 1936, Lauder fled Austria as a child. Her family arrived in New York City in the 1940s and Lauder grew up on the Upper West Side. As a college student she met Leonard Lauder, who would go on to earn a fortune from his family’s cosmetics company and become one of New York’s leading patrons of the arts. The couple married in 1959.

In 1989, Lauder was diagnosed with breast cancer. Though she has been reluctant to speak about her own experience with the disease, Lauder has nonetheless become a major figure in the fight against it, founding in 1993 the Breast Cancer Research Foundation and helping to popularize the pink ribbon. In 2007, Lauder was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, the complications of which led to her death on Saturday.

“We are great fans of Evelyn and the whole organization,” said Nancy Brinker, the founder and chief executive of Susan G. Komen for the Cure, the organization established in 1982 in memory of Brinker’s older sister, Susan, who passed away from the disease in 1980.”[Her passing] is very sad and a loss for all of us.”

Like Lauder, Brinker is both Jewish and a survivor of breast cancer. Her organization and the BCRF have funded many of the same scientists over the years, including those in Israel doing groundbreaking research on the disease’s genetic component. In Israel, breast cancer is the most common form of women’s cancer, accounting for nearly 30 percent of all new cancer cases in the country, according to the Komen website.

To help raise awareness and support breast cancer research efforts in Israel, Komen partnered with Hadassah and other Jewish organizations, and held its first Race for the Cure in Jerusalem last year.

Shoretz founded Sharsheret in November 2001 after her own diagnosis of breast cancer at the age of 28. The organization, she said, has not been a direct benefit of the monies raised by Lauder and the BCRF. But her personal oncologist was honored recently at the foundation’s gala dinner in New York.

“By their nature, Jewish women are strong advocates,” Shoretz said. “To meld our personal passions with a professional calling — Evelyn Lauder was a tremendous example of that.”

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