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Jewish Group Provides Support for Women with Breast Cancer

August 4, 2003
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When Margo Allswang was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 34, she realized that friends could empathize but they couldn’t really understand her anguish.

“Your friends can do a lot, but they’re not living your pain,” she says.

Through a New Jersey-based nonprofit organization known as Sharsheret, however, the Boca Raton, Fla., woman was linked to a multitude of other young Jewish women across the country who were in the same position.

All of a sudden, she had people to talk to who could really understand her and help her.

“Sharsheret differs from other organizations,” Allswang says. “You don’t have to start from square one. Everyone’s Jewish and can relate to you in some way.”

The group’s founder and executive director, Rochelle Shoretz, says that was the goal when she launched the program less than two years ago.

“When we started Sharsheret, expectations were pretty limited,” she says. “We thought that if we could just help five women it would be a success,”

It’s done a lot more than that. Since its inception in November 2001, Sharsheret has reached more than 1,800 young Jewish women with breast cancer in at least 18 states.

According to the Human Genome Project in Washington, some 2 percent of Ashkenazi Jews carry one of the BRCA-1 and BRCA-2 mutations that has been linked to breast and ovarian cancers.

A 1997 study into the risk of breast and ovarian cancers among Ashkenazi Jews found that, by the age of 70, a person with the mutations has a 56 percent chance of getting breast cancer and a 17 percent chance of getting ovarian cancer.

But most breast cancer stems from factors other than genetic mutations, say those who study the issue.

Sharsheret stemmed from Shoretz’s own experience. A graduate of Barnard College and Columbia Law School, she went on to serve as a clerk to Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in 1999 — becoming what she says was the first Orthodox Jewish woman to clerk for a Supreme Court justice.

All was going well until her malignancy was diagnosed in July 2001.

“When I was diagnosed, there were a lot of offers to help with meals and transport my kids, but I really wanted to speak to another young mom who was going to have to explain to her kids that she was going to lose her hair to chemo.”

Shoretz says she soon realized that “I really did need to speak to someone who could understand what it was like to live in a small Jewish community, and do things like go to the mikvah after breast surgery.”

“After I begged everyone who called me to help me find someone with breast cancer with whom I could speak,” she says, Shoretz was introduced to Lauryn Weiser.

After connecting with Weiser, who was a few months ahead of Shoretz in her cancer treatments, Shoretz realized that “it would be an amazing thing for us to be able to connect people like this.”

Now, the core of Sharsheret — the Hebrew word for chain — is its “link” program.

Women diagnosed with breast cancer phone the organization for information and support.

Women who call usually reach Shoretz, who speaks with them about their concerns and then carefully searches the extensive Sharsheret database to find the caller a link who has already experienced parallels in her treatment and personal life.

“We’ll stay on the line as long as it takes to help someone describe the kind of person with whom they would like to be paired and the issues they would like to discuss,” says Shoretz.

Allswang’s link, a New Jersey breast cancer survivor, was around the same age as Allswang at diagnosis.

Her link has children around the same ages as Allswang, maintains the same level of religious observance and had undergone the same surgeries and chemotherapy treatment.

They communicate around once every 10 days, via telephone or e-mail.

Nira Berry of Potomac, Md., was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 43.

“I’m no spring chicken, but when I was diagnosed, everyone was having their mothers and grandmothers call me. It was very depressing,” Berry says.

“Even though I’m not in my 20s, I have different issues from people in their 60s and 70s.”

Through a friend, she found Sharsheret, which generally reaches out to women who “share the common concerns of a younger woman, such as a career and/or child-rearing” Shoretz says.

Between all of her surgeries, Berry found herself bed-ridden and weak for about a year.

While her community quickly rallied to help out with everyday tasks such as grocery shopping, chauffeuring her kids and making meals, Sharsheret gave her ideas for what she could do.

She has been working with local Jewish social service agencies to create support groups for women, husbands and children, provide meals to those affected by a woman undergoing chemotherapy treatment and organize a conference featuring medical expects from the Lombardi Cancer Center at Georgetown University.

Berry has since become Sharsheret’s regional director for the Maryland area. She has been spreading the word about the organization via radio, local newspaper and conferences.

Like all of Sharsheret’s services, the conference is open to people of all religions. Many of the participants in Sharsheret’s conferences are Jewish — as are almost all of those who call the group’s hotline.

Women don’t just call Sharsheret to be linked, though — anyone affected by a woman with breast cancer can call for information and resources.

Sharsheret projects on the horizon include a program with a volunteer makeup artist offering tips and guidelines for women who have lost their hair to chemo, and a program dispensing boxes of toys to children whose mothers are recovering at home after treatments.

Shoretz was recently named a Yoplait Champion in the Fight Against Breast Cancer, an award given by the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation, Yoplait and Self magazine.

Allswang is thankful for all of Sharsheret’s services.

“It’s nice just to be able to talk to someone and ask questions, and not have to explain the medical jargon,” she says.

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