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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…
I was a little worried on Rosh Hashanah. By Yom Kippur, I was anxious enough to wonder out loud what I might look like without hair. The official call came right before Sukkot. I was in the kitchen preparing for the holiday and my husband was putting the finishing touches on our sukkah. It was 10:00 pm and the man who was an old family friend, and who I would soon call my oncologist, called to share the news that I did indeed have cancer and had a year’s worth of chemotherapy and radiation ahead of me. It wasn’t a surprise, but now it was a reality and I finally allowed myself to break down. I had carried the fear with me through the New Year and was now shaking with anger that the cancer that had already invaded my body was now invading my favorite time of year, my favorite holiday.
I love Sukkot. I always have. I love the changing leaves, the cool breezes, the connection to nature and even the sense of fragility we face in the sukkah. This year, the fragility was not theoretical. Instead of mornings in the synagogue with my community and afternoons filled with delicious meals with friends and family, I would spend my Sukkot filled with staging tests, scheduling treatments and comforting my young family.
I wondered to myself if sometimes you need a clear sign to truly understand a holiday. I wondered if a cancer diagnosis on my favorite holiday would ruin the celebration forever?
The fragility of life was unmistakable to me that year. Sitting in the sukkah took on a vivid new meaning. But so did my sense of community. It was clear that I would not go through this experience alone. My family, my friends and the greater community stayed by my side. They provided child care, meals, rides, friendship and perhaps best of all, humor. They built a more solid shelter for me than I could have ever hoped for. The year of my cancer diagnosis I truly understood the fragility of life – and I truly understood the meaning of community. Despite Sukkot not going as planned, I learned its lessons well.
Now, each Sukkot that passes seems to be a celebration of life, not a commemoration of diagnosis. I do understand the fragility of our lives, and instead of bemoaning that fragility, I celebrate the strength I had, and the strength I have developed as a result of my cancer experience. I see Sukkot as a personal triumph and welcome it with open arms every year.
I was lucky enough to meet Rochelle, Sharsheret’s Founder and Executive Director, through the Berrie Fellows Leadership Program eleven years ago. I was so inspired by her intelligence, her sensitivity, her knowledge and her tenacity. A few years later, while having lunch together, I mentioned that I was training for the MORE Half-Marathon in NYC, a race in which only women competed. I knew that Rochelle was a runner as well and I invited her to run with me…then I thought that I would run for Sharsheret. I joined Sharsheret’s very first Team with two other women and we completed the race on a cold wet Sunday. From my very first step, I knew that my commitment and involvement would only grow. Today, I am honored to be running my sixth half-marathon again with Team Sharsheret!!
Joining Team Sharsheret is a perfect way for me to remember and honor Rochelle and so many women in my life. I am running in memory of Emily, my best friend’s sister, a woman in her 20s who was diagnosed with Stage 4 breast cancer. I am running in honor of Debbie, who was immediately diagnosed with breast cancer just after her sister Emily had passed away, and in honor of Sharsheret and the amazing work that they do every day to support women and their families facing breast cancer and ovarian cancer.
Please support me in my efforts as I train through the warm summer and fundraise and spread the word about Sharsheret.
“On Rosh Hashanah it is inscribed
And on Yom Kippur it is sealed
How many shall die and how many shall be born
Who shall live and who shall die…”
A woman living with advanced cancer recently shared with me that as she read the prayer, “Who shall live and who shall die,” on Rosh Hashana, she shifted her focus from the literal interpretation of the prayer on life and death, to now seeing the prayer more metaphorically as a template for how to live life. Seeing this highly charged and emotional prayer from a different angle offers a guideline on how to experience life and living, particularly when facing difficulties and challenges in your life.
I relayed her message to other women living with advanced cancer in Sharsheret’s Embrace program, who deepened the discussion by adding their own interpretations to this historical and timeless prayer.
Am I living my life to the fullest or am I focused on dying?
How am I measuring my days? Am I squandering time?
Do I live my life reacting to everything as if my home is on fire or damaged from a great flood? Not everything is a 10 on the stress scale.
What should I be hungering for? Am I yearning for the right things? What are my true needs?
Am I strangling myself by constant thoughts of fear and anxiety, negativity, jealousy, or anger?
Am I taking time to rest or am I always wandering, running? Do moments of rest scare me?
How can I live my life in tranquility and not give into the bullying of cancer?
How do I place a value on my life? In what ways am I wealthy (not monetarily)? Do I appreciate my riches? Am I grateful for what I have?
How do I continue to raise myself?
As we approach Yom Kippur, our task is to reflect back on this past year in order to help us move forward. With new eyes on this prayer, we can find hope and inspiration for this upcoming year. I wish all of us meaningful and uplifting reflections.
I had been married for seven months when I was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. Just one month before my diagnosis, I was on my honeymoon. Then one day, I had a pain in my side that needed investigating. The diagnosis came quickly. I needed surgery, which would involve losing a lot of my reproductive system, and I needed chemotherapy.
The beginning of our marriage was supposed to be filled with hope, promise, and dreams for the future. But cancer stole that magical sense of newness. I had to get through the surgery, the chemo, and I had to find a way to have children. I remember, as I was ushered into surgery, begging the doctor...please, I'm 23. Please try not to take everything. We want a family. Please.
I was lucky to be surrounded by a strong support system. My newly minted husband was so good to me. He cried with me, stayed up with me when I woke up afraid in the middle of the night. He didn't flinch when I found hair on my pillow and helped me cut it off so it would be less traumatic. He loved me through it. And my mom was truly heroic. A cancer survivor herself, she'd arrive at the hospital by 7 am, sit by my side while I slept, and make a discreet exit when my husband arrived, ensuring that we had some time together as newlyweds.
I had so much love surrounding me, and yet, I felt so lonely. Being sick was isolating. Being so young, I felt completely alone. Who could relate to what this pain feels like? Who could quell my fears about the mysterious side effects of chemotherapy? Who could understand how desperate I was to have children?
After many years of heartache, and more jealousy than I'm proud to admit, we were miraculously able to start a family. We now have four children, a life that we never could have imagined at the time of diagnosis. When I was in the hospital delivering my twins, I actually had the same orderly that I had when I was in treatment. When I recognized her, she couldn't get over how special it was for me to move from the oncology floor to the maternity ward.
For years, I've hesitated to share my story. Recently, I approached Sharsheret because I felt ready to tell my story. Sharsheret encouraged me to speak. They convinced me that we have to share the good stories, the things that work out. By sharing, we remind ourselves that we are not alone with our struggles. By sharing, we find hope.
I wish Sharsheret were around when I was sick. Connecting with others is sacred. For that reason, I am proud to be a part of Sharsheret today. To offer whatever support I can to other women facing a similar journey. I'm still working on not feeling guilty. But I'm going to keep sharing, in the hope that we can find strength in our journeys. That we can find the strength to go on. That we can find the strength to hope.
I come from a tight-knit family. My mom, dad, aunt, uncle, brother, and cousin, Dana, are six of my biggest supporters and best friends and my aunt, uncle, and cousin live the town over from me in suburban Boston. Weekly dinners and holidays together are common when I come home from college, and the seven of us celebrate almost every occasion together. So when my aunt, Carol Kappel, was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2010, chemotherapy and Herceptin became common words in my household and seeing my aunt in a head scarf became the new normal.
Five years later and my aunt is completely healthy, running, and staying active almost every day and still very much a part of my life. She has become one of the most vocal and passionate advocates of breast cancer research that I know and lives her day-to-day with a love for life that only tragedy and survival can provide. While she continues to count her blessings, I do as well, for I know that many nieces, nephews, grandchildren, sons, daughters, husbands, and wives across the world are not as lucky as I.
I decided to run the Spartan Race at Cornell to raise money for Sharsheret with a group of my Alpha Epsilon Phi sisters. Sharsheret is one of our national philanthropies, helping women like my aunt find support while they battle breast cancer. My aunt has been my biggest cheerleader as I train for the race on September 5th and I am so proud and honored to run it for her.
© 2016 Sharsheret: Your Jewish Community Facing Breast Cancer