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Just returned from a 90th birthday celebration bike ride from Boston to Newport (Rochelle Shoretz's 40th and my 50th). The cycling group was organized by a friend, Richard Shuster, who has as large a personality as Rochelle's. It was not a charity ride. Instead, these annual Shuster rides are all about pure joy and being mindful of life's blessings. In our group of 40 bikers, there were three cancer survivors and a woman whose daughter is BRCA positive, as well as Andy Seidman, a renowned breast cancer oncologist at Memorial-Sloan Kettering Cancer Center.
The first day had its share of a few treacherous roads but then we navigated on to a beautiful bike path. As I biked alongside Rochelle, she was drafting behind Andy and looked at me and said how surreal it was to be riding on Andy's tail. Just as we pulled into the Biltmore Hotel in Providence, Rhode Island, having clocked 52 miles, the sky opened up and there was a torrential downpour. We considered ourselves blessed simply by the fact that we managed to stay dry.
The second day began with an "official" toast to the "most inspirational rider", who briefly spoke about Sharsheret as I stood beside her clad in my Sharsheret cycling gear. After riding along a 17-mile bike path along the water, the day ended in Newport as we biked into a park bordering the Atlantic Ocean with kids flying kites across the sky. Spectacular!
As I biked alongside my daughter Kayla, who will be college-bound by the end of the upcoming school year, I was reminded of how unsuccessful we were at flying kites when she was younger. I felt blessed not just because kites flew in the sky rather than the threatening showers that were predicted earlier in the morning, but also for celebrating my 50th birthday, biking next to her.
Birthdays take on a more special meaning after a breast cancer diagnosis. It did not surprise me that Rochelle had the physical stamina for the 100-mile bike journey. It was the first time I witnessed how she had the stamina to keep retelling the Sharsheret story. The wheels of joy and embracing life's blessings kept us going. Next year, we will clock the extra one mile to get us to a century!! The year after that we will aim for 120!
My grandmother died in 1995 after a long battle with breast cancer. In all of the years of her illness, I cannot recall her using the word "cancer". She spoke of being "sick", "weak", "unwell", and she asked me, on her death bed, to remember her. "Don't forget me," she would say repeatedly, frail and bald and unlike the confident Bubby who had pushed me on the park swing as a child, arms made strong from years of sewing sweaters in a factory. I remember sitting beside her, law books in my lap as I studied for exams by her hospital bedside, thinking that her request was odd: "Don't forget me". How could I forget her, my own grandmother, who had helped raise me?
But the reality of my grandmother's generation was that those with cancer were often forgotten. The disease itself was not discussed. Some whispered about "Yeneh Machlah" - "that disease" - in Yiddish. Others would refer to the "C word", without actually uttering the word itself. Fears of "Ayin Harah" - the evil eye - shadowed real conversations about cancer, and concerns about marriagibility among family members forced many into a hiding of sorts.
Eleven years ago last week, I, too, was diagnosed with breast cancer for the first time - 28 years old, an attorney raising two young children. And sadly, not much had changed in the Jewish community since my grandmother's diagnosis. Despite the plethora of organizations addressing community needs, there was no Jewish response to breast cancer although 1 in 40 Jews of Ashkenazi descent carries a gene mutation that makes us almost 10 times more likely to develop hereditary breast, ovarian, and related cancers. New research points to genetic susceptibility among Sephardi Jewish families as well.
I founded Sharsheret, a national breast cancer organization addressing the needs of Jewish women and families facing breast cancer, to fill that void. In the past 10 years, we have launched 11 national programs, including one addressing ovarian cancer among Jewish families. We have welcomed more than 1,600 women to our National Peer Support Network. We have responded to more than 24,000 breast cancer inquiries, presented more than 250 education programs nationwide, and educated students on more than 150 campuses across the country. We have been awarded a seat on the Federal Advisory Committee on Breast Cancer in Young Women and federal grants to develop programming specific for Jewish women and families affected by breast cancer.
Perhaps even more than Sharsheret has accomplished on its own, I am proud that we have paved the way to welcome neighbors into this once lonely community of cancer advocacy and support. Today there are more than 30 Sharsheret Supports partners - Jewish organizations that develop local breast cancer and ovarian cancer programs nationwide - adding to the growing Jewish communal response to cancer.
As I mark my 40th birthday today, a two-time cancer survivor, I celebrate not only the life with which I have been blessed, but the lives of those, like my grandmother, whose cancer journeys - no longer a forgotten whisper - have found their voice.
© 2014 Sharsheret: Your Jewish Community Facing Breast Cancer
Sharsheret is a 501(c)(3) charitable organization ID# 13-4198529
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