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The poet Yehuda Amichai must not have been privileged to have an encounter with Rochelle Shoretz, the founder of Sharsheret, when he crafted the poem:
A man doesn't have time in his life
to have time for everything.
He doesn't have seasons enough to have
a season for every purpose.
Ecclesiastes was wrong about that.
Rochelle Shoretz, a woman who embraced her gifts and used them to navigate her challenges, was 28 years old and had just finished clerking for Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg of the United States Supreme Court when she noticed an indentation in one of her breasts. It was Stage II cancer, and she beat it. While on chemotherapy, she opted to decline lucrative and prestigious legal jobs, and instead began Sharsheret, an organization that supports thousands of young women with breast cancer.
I think it best to help each of you understand exactly how incredibly special Rochelle was by sharing with you her own words from a journal she kept a few years later in the aftermath of receiving a diagnosis of advanced breast cancer. One of many poetic entries read:
This morning I went to say Birchat Hachama – a blessing on the sun that is recited every 28 years-with my friends…I had heard about the blessing in Synagogue last weekend, but I didn’t quite recognize the significance of the event until my friend came to visit last night. She insisted that I go this morning and taught me that at the end of the recitation of the blessing, you are supposed to turn to your right and to your left, and tell each person standing next to you, “See you in 28 years.”
I’ll take 28 years.
So this morning, as the clouds parted to make room for the sun, I recited the blessing with friends and we promised to meet back in the park in 2037. Then we danced…It was cold, but the sun was shining and I was in the park with the people I love….”
Rochelle, otherwise known as Rochie, by those of us privileged to really know her, did not receive the gift of those 28 years. But she knew how to make every single moment count, so her “years” were longer than most of ours.
Her secret was that she “stayed in the sunshine,” after all as she herself often cited, “It costs the same as staying in the clouds.” A dear friend of hers who spoke at her funeral expressed that “Rochie’s life was painted in huge brushstrokes. She always fired on all 6 cylinders.”
Testimony to that energy is that precisely when first undergoing chemotherapy and radiation therapy at age 28, she founded Sharsheret (Hebrew for “chain”), a national organization supporting young Jewish women facing breast cancer.
When diagnosed for the second time with metastatic breast cancer, Rochie wrote:
“As someone living with a sharpened sense of the value of time, I appreciate, that although I have done a lot of amazing things in 40 short years …..nothing has given my life more meaning than sharing Sharsheret’s unapologetically Jewish message worldwide.”
Sharsheret began as an organization of forging links between women who share a language of experience. It offered peer support, and continues to do so, in a very real way, for so many women. Rochelle herself was the first link. The organization established educational programs; cosmetic support for young women undergoing chemotherapy with a “Best Face Forward” initiative; and Busy Boxes filled with age appropriate toys for the children of young women undergoing chemotherapy to help keep the children happy and occupied.
Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik expounded in an essay entitled Kol Dodi Dofek that when one is suffering: “I ask one simple question: What must the sufferer do so that he (or she) may live through his (or her) suffering? We ask neither about the cause of suffering nor about its purpose, but, rather, about how it might be mended and elevated.”
This is precisely the question Rochie incessantly asked herself. And answered.
Rochelle Shoretz chose to “stay in the sunshine.” She shared that “they often say when you lose one of five senses, your others are enhanced….I wonder if life feels so much more powerful and vibrant to me precisely because I lost some of my health.”
She approached her illness not as fate, but as destiny, building Sharsheret and thereby forging close, critical relationships not only between herself and others but also forging critical connections for a multitude of women who otherwise would have remained so isolated by their illness. What a powerful role model for each of us.
When people ask me to describe my sister Rochelle, I do it in one sentence: She was great at life. She approached any endeavor and obstacle with tenacity and always gave one hundred percent. Her motto, that I’m sure everyone at Sharsheret knows, was that there are no problems, only solutions waiting to be found. Rochelle began running marathons and triathlons after her first diagnosis and has inspired me to challenge my mind and body through her spirited accounts of these achievements. The courage and perseverance she displayed throughout her lifetime has been my ultimate motivator during this emotionally and physically trying time.
Through her deep love for and devotion to family and the Jewish community, Rochelle created Sharsheret to provide the culturally relevant resources and support to Jewish women and their loved ones. In the wake of her passing, Team Sharsheret has given me the opportunity to connect with many people that have been touched by breast cancer, either personally or through a family member or close friend, and I have found immense comfort in hearing about the wonderful resource Sharsheret has been for them and their communities. I’ve heard my sister say that nothing has given her life more meaning than sharing Sharsheret’s mission. While I wish we had gotten the chance to accomplish this by racing together, I can't think of a better way to honor her memory than by continuing her legacy of Sharsheret doing something that made her feel so alive.
I’m running for Rochelle and my entire extended Sharsheret family. This is my first race with Team Sharsheret, but I know it won’t be my last!
Excerpted from a Pink Shabbat D’var Torah
In the Bible, we learn the story of Noah- a man who was righteous for his generation- that took a journey he never would have planned. Since he’s a righteous fellow, God speaks to him-
Noah, I’ve decided to wipe out the earth
Noah, Here’s what you need to do- build an ark! Gather your family, the animals, and food.
Noah has a week to get it all together, and then it rains for 40 days and 40 nights. The water recedes, he sends out the dove, Noah, his family and animals arrive on dry land, and God makes a covenant with the people that this will never happen again, by the sign of a rainbow.
Noah is one story of the Bible that has hundreds, if not thousands of children’s books written about it. Somehow, this story of an unexpected journey is compelling to us, as adults, and as a community. What is it- about a person of character, facing adversity- taking a leap of faith- and coming out on the other side?
Somehow, that seems to be the story of life. For all of us.
One of my friends recently said to me, that sometimes, we have to be reminded that we are actually not the ones driving the bus. Just when we think we have it all together, life will throw us a curve ball.
Here’s my curve ball.
Nov, 2014, I ran the NY marathon, and was inspired by my incredible experience. There is nothing like NY.
I signed up as quickly as I could for the NY Marathon 2015- with the team that supports Sharsheret, a national not-for-profit organization supporting young women and their families, of all Jewish backgrounds, facing breast cancer. I believe in their work, I have friends and family with breast and ovarian cancer, people who face the genetic testing and decisions related to BRCA genes, which can lead to breast and ovarian cancer- and I am touched by this issue and cause. This organization felt personal.
I began my 20 week marathon training plan in June for Team Sharsheret. I raised money for Sharsheret, I learned more about their programs and their services. My mom even began to volunteer in their offices. What started out as a great cause and a great way to run the NY marathon, became personal. In September, 8 weeks before the race, I was diagnosed with breast cancer.
I called my Sharsheret Team Captain, and had to tell her my situation.
I was put immediately into the Sharsheret system. I was connected with a Counselor in their Support team who reached out, and I feel, just keeps an eye on me along this process. She asked about my children and their ages and interests, and sent a “Busy Box” full of quiet activities for when “mommy doesn't feel so well”- They sent materials, brochures and resources- both for me, and for Salomon, as my partner and primary caregiver. Once I knew what procedures and process I was going to have- they connected me to a woman in Maryland, who is trained as a “peer counselor,” and has walked the same path as me. Just yesterday, I received a “pillow of support” in the mail, from Sharsheret’s founding board member.
And the story of the marathon- well, I’m not running NY this year but I kept training, because I don't know what else to do with myself. Running keeps me together physically and mentally. I thrive when I’m on a plan. I decided that once we set my surgery date, I would find a local marathon to run.
I was out with my training buddy one day- and thought of a 40 mile race my friend, Adam Jackson did, a few years ago. I began to wonder- what would it look like if I created my own course and made this a fundraiser and friend-raiser for Sharsheret? And so, the journey began. Oct 8th, I met with Adam to get this envisioned, and 10 days later, (this Sunday!) I will be running a marathon with over 30 friends- and over 25 at support stations along the way.
It has been so much more fun to think about running than about breast cancer. But, yes, breast cancer is part of the story.
And with that, one of my friends reached out to channel 7 news, and there was a great segment about me, this journey and the marathon Thursday night. And then on Friday, kveller.com picked it up, and shared my story as well. It’s been nonstop publicity these past 2 days. Since the segment aired, I have surpassed my $10,000 fundraising goal for Sharsheret.
What is it about an unexpected journey, adversity, and fierce crazy determination that opens our hearts? It’s because it’s in each of us. We have all had to take journeys, like Noah, like me- that were unexpected. We all have to decide how we will embark on these unchosen paths. But the journey is just part of our story- it’s what we make of it that counts.
I am so grateful to Sharsheret, and to our community for accompanying me on this path. Thank you for being here, thank you for being present, and thank you for being part of Pink Shabbat.
I am beginning my senior year at Stern College majoring in biology. The decision to commit the time and effort to run a marathon was a difficult one. However, I'm now all in! Sharsheret is an amazing organization that has made a difference in so many lives and families, mine included. In a time when there was so much unknown and fear, it was a huge comfort to know that Sharsheret was there.
Mammograms are not particularly pleasant. Also in the unpleasant category- getting a letter from the breast imaging center informing you that because your breasts are dense, you also need a sonogram.
I went in for the sonogram. After having had so many ultrasounds during my pregnancies, it was weird to be getting scanned when no baby was involved.
I’m not a nervous person, but I had already worked myself into something of a tizzy as I lay there on the table.
I stared at the technician’s face as she scanned me, searching for a clue. Let me tell you something – I WOULD NEVER PLAY POKER WITH AN ULTRASOUND TECHNICIAN. Then, she starts to type things on the screen:
Really? I ask. Surely you’ve seen worse.
She assured me that “SAG” was only a technical term.
I stop searching her face for clues, and turn to the screen. A few minutes later, after I’m sure I’ve spotted what are many suspicious marks, she types TR.
It is at this point that I move from mild anxiety to full on panic. I was covered in such a thick layer of shvitz, that I was sure I’d slide right off the table.
The tech said nothing. When she left to get the doctor I sat up and waited.
Hours later, the doctor came, all cheer and chatting. I am monosyllabic in my responses.
You ok? He asked.
Kind of, I reply. It’s just been a long wait in here.
Its been ten minutes, he said. I looked at my watch. He was right.
Just tell me. I said. What’s the verdict?
He said I was fine. All clear.
TR? I say, perhaps a bit too loudly. TR – stands for tumor, doesn’t it? I saw her type it. I pointed at the technician. How can I be fine?
Apparently, TR is short for TRAVERSAL, and not tumor. While I’m on the subject of my ignorance, SAG is short for SAGITTAL. Please don’t ask me what either means.
I raced out of the office and grabbed a carrot juice. I sat down on the sidewalk, drank it, and checked my email.
There in my inbox was an email I had received from Sharsheret, an organization which counsels women and families facing breast and ovarian cancer. They had a spot left on their marathon team.
I ran a marathon in 1999 – before kids. I’ve only run halves since then and frankly, were it not for my desire to run the NYC marathon just once, I would have ignored the email.
But I wanted to run it. I also knew, sitting on that sidewalk, that if I’d had a silly panic attack during a routine, all-clear sonogram, women who go through far worse need every ounce of support we can muster, and they need it every stage.
Which is really why I’m running. It’s also why I’m asking you to sponsor me in my run.
With a breast cancer survivor for a mother and a physician for a father, in addition to a strong family history of ovarian cancer, regimented monitoring for abnormalities was routine in my late teens and early twenties. After losing a friend to breast cancer at an early age and experiencing a scare of my own, which led to the removal of a benign lump, testing for the BRCA gene mutation was an obvious decision. There was very little shock when the test results were positive. Though we already had two children, my husband and I made family planning a priority, so that we could begin to take steps toward prevention in a timely manner.
Within a year after my fourth child was born, I began the process of prophylactic procedures to minimize my risk of becoming ill. Over the next two years, I would undergo a bilateral oophorectomy, a bilateral mastectomy with reconstruction, and a full hysterectomy, while enduring a number of minor complications along the way. The road seemed long and the journey had many ups and downs. In the end, the empowerment that came from confronting and conquering the challenges moved me to realign my priori-ties and inspired me to become involved with Sharsheret.
As a peer supporter and a community advocate for Sharsheret, and in speaking about my experiences with the BRCA gene muta-tion, I aim to provide women and their families with the comfort and encouragement that I did not seek when I needed it most. Because of Sharsheret, I have had the opportunity to influence women who may be facing breast or ovarian cancer and to demon-strate that they can meet the challenges head on and then look to the future without fear of inevitable illness. The opportunity to make a positive impact has been Sharsheret's priceless gift to me, for which I am deeply grateful.
While being treated with chemotherapy and surgery for a breast cancer diagnosis, I didn’t feel beautiful; I was depressed, scared and anxious. I stopped wearing make-up those several months; I felt absent from my life and was waiting for the new “me” to unfold. I sought support during my vulnerable months and Sharsheret was there for me even though I am not Jewish!
Since I was on their roster, I received the email that Bloomingdale’s at Riverside, NJ was pairing up with Sharsheret to offer its participants a complimentary makeover and free personal shopping consultation in support of National Breast Cancer Awareness Month. I jumped at the opportunity for free pampering, looking forward to learning tips after my beauty-siesta.
Chelsea, the Bobbi Brown Cosmetic genius that made me over was friendly, compassionate and professional, answering my questions as we went along. I felt relaxed in her chair, trusting her eye; I requested a look for a night out in NYC that evening, so she focused on my eyes, finishing my look with contouring powder and a light gloss on my lips. When I looked in the mirror, I genuinely liked what I saw: my features were accentuated in a natural-looking way, Chelsea took good care in creating her masterpiece, I felt like a superstar my night out! Afterwards, I was given a chart with the list of products used especially for my skin, and was not pressured to buy. I came away feeling like this was an experience to truly help me feel glamorous, not to pressure me to spend money. I thank Bloomingdale’s, Bobbi Brown Cosmetics and Sharsheret for the opportunity to be pampered, seeing myself in a light where I shine, celebrating all that I am today!
What does a healthy life mean to you? I thought I was healthy when I was diagnosed with thyroid cancer at the age of 29. Since then I exercised and ate vegetables and had 2 children. My thyroid was checked every 6 months and I thought I was healthy. Then last year I was diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 42. Like most women I was busy with my family, work, friends, and life. I didn’t have time for cancer again.
Cancer takes a village. Over tea my sister-in-law asked me if I heard of Sharsheret and suggested contacting them. I followed her advice and was quickly paired with a peer supporter, and Sharsheret sent me an amazing array of packages and resources - all for free! I’m truly impressed with Sharsheret and feel fortunate to have been introduced to such a well-run and supportive organization.
Now I’m recovering from my second surgery in 5 months, and want to continue my healthy lifestyle. There are days I don’t feel like exercising. Staying in bed is tempting. Popsicles are more comforting than fruit. What’s a cancer survivor to do?
Different things work for different women! Here are some things that worked for me.
Excerpted from her remarks at Temple Beth Torah’s Sharsheret Pink Shabbat on May 3, 2015.
I was 8 months pregnant with my second son at my cousin Susan's funeral.
Six years later, I sat in a paper robe, on a hospital table. Legs swinging and a chill running down my back, listening to something that was completely unexpected, yet expected.
"You have breast cancer. And it's very serious."
It was 2011 and we were new to Miami after my family moved down from Philadelphia, just a few months before this bomb was dropped.
“Who is going to make me comfort food?” In Philly, I had signed up on community food delivery calendars I made meatloaf and veggie lasagna. I showed up. Who would show up for me?
I was lonely and I was scared. My only close example of breast cancer was my favorite cousin, diagnosed at exactly my age and gone in what felt like an instant.
I tried a support group. The women were older, earlier staged. I left these groups feeling lonelier and angry. I had a wonderful husband, friends, and parents. Still, no one knew what to say.
A friend, who was diagnosed a few months earlier, recommended I call Sharsheret. I needed to speak to someone with my diagnosis, who had young children, and spoke my language of mourning. I was mourning the same way someone going through a divorce mourns a marriage or someone who once had all their limbs misses a leg. I was mourning the carefree normal worries of a young mom. I traded these worries for fear. Fear that our lives would never go back to normal. Fear I would not make it to my son’s Bar Mitzvahs.
I spoke with Linda from Arizona. She, too, was diagnosed in her 30's. She had small kids and also had aggressive stage 3 breast cancer. She was 10 years out of active treatment, and had been peer counseling for Sharsheret. We talked about many topics from Shabbat to chemo. She commended me on my good luck choosing an Orthodox community to live in. My family is not Orthodox, but I had the ability to blend in with my new wig. We talked about fertility, ovaries, kids, exercise, and husbands.
The whole time we talked, a small voice in the back of my head said over and over, "She's still here. Ten years and she is still here."
So there I was, less alone and with something new lurking. Something that felt like hope.
In the months and years since I finished treatment, I get a call from Sharsheret from time to time to talk with a woman who is newly diagnosed. We discuss family, chemo, fertility, Judaism, surgery, husbands, and radiation. We speak the language of mourning.
At some point in the conversation, I text a picture of myself from my “chemo days”. In this picture I am bald, my eyebrows and eyelashes are gone. My face is puffy with steroids. My kids are sitting with me, smaller, sadder.
Then I take an “in the moment” smiling selfie. I am possibly in the supermarket, walking across a bridge, or pumping gas. My hair is long, my eyelashes back, my face looks like me again.
And I hear it. It's very subtle, but I hear it. It's hope in her voice.
And maybe that little voice in her head saying, “She's still here. Three years and she is still here."
My mother had both breast and ovarian cancer.
Despite all odds and a less than 3% chance of surviving, my mother, Joyce Turner, survived them both. Yet I still didn’t want to face my potential vulnerability.
My mother, Joyce, was the 21st person to join a National Institute of Health study of the BRCA genetic mutation. She joined the study in 1996, nearly twenty years after her double mastectomies, six years after surviving an 8 pound ovarian tumor. My mother joined the study on behalf of our family, and chose to speak out and communicate with other family members about her history. Following my mother’s lead, my family agreed to be tested en masse. We now have over 100 family members in the NIH databank.
Upon confirmation that we were a “cancer family” our family created a Google discussion group. We openly discussed out test outcomes. Many of us decided, together, to have hysterectomies or oophorectomies. We joked about trying to get a group discount with the doctors.
Now, some of us have decided to face preventive mastectomies. Others with the BRCA gene decided they do not want to take that step. Still we joke that if we had the surgeries together it would be great, because then the entire family would have to visit in the hospital and bring us great meals and treats! We’ve given each other gift cards after each surgery and specific information about what to expect in the aftermath of each surgery. My cousins ask each other questions nobody else would ask, because we are often going through these things together. For example, how many cc’s are you putting in your breast tissue expanders? More than that, we sometimes fret and support each other over our children’s decision to be tested or not.
So, I urge you to try to break the silence and openly discuss this with your immediate and extended family. Discuss it with your children, parents, cousins, distant cousins, spouse. There is no shondah in this. This is part of our common heritage. Open communication allows your family members to take steps to protect their own lives and those of their children! It’s a family affair…
© 2016 Sharsheret: Your Jewish Community Facing Breast Cancer