Young breast-cancer patients find sisters amid survivors

Just one week after radical breast cancer surgery, Sarah Fenner, a 35-year-old San Rafael resident and mother of two, tried on her sense of humor: "If I had to learn about breast health, I would have rather gotten a telegram," she joked. But Fenner received no such warning — instead she found a lump.

Still in the midst of recovery, Fenner has already decided that she wants to serve as a "link" for Sharsheret, a New Jersey-based organization that arranges private, confidential matches nationwide for young Jewish women with breast cancer.

"While I don't want breast cancer to become the focus of my life," she said, "there is something to be served by having other people learn from my experience."

Sharsheret's founder, Rochelle Shoretz, is a survivor herself. One year ago, she launched the organization from her attic. Today Sharsheret boasts a paid staff and hundreds of volunteers around the country.

Recently, Sharsheret was awarded a grant from Joshua Venture, an S.F.-based foundation that provides fellowships to Jewish social entrepreneurs. According to Brian Gaines, executive director of Joshua Venture, more than 130 applications were received, and only eight made the final cut.

"We were really struck by Rochelle's commitment and passion…the incredible tenacity and courage that she brings to this work. She really embodies what a Jewish social entrepreneur should be," Gaines said.

Joshua Venture awarded Sharsheret $30,000 per year for two years — seed money that will help the organization continue its community outreach.

Apart from financial aid, Sharsheret will continue to rely on people like Fenner and Abrams who are willing to share their stories and their courage. Fenner seems eager to do just that as she begins the next chapter of her life. "Everything with breast cancer happens on a fast timeline…it's a very steep learning curve," Fenner said. "I'm happy to be a resource for Sharsheret."

Shoretz, a former law clerk to Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, said it was her own experience with breast cancer that motivated her to help others. When she was diagnosed at 28, a mutual friend connected her with Lauryn Weiser, a New York woman in her early 30s with breast cancer. Shoretz, who lives in New Jersey, found that the bond between them, based on age and diagnosis, made a huge difference in her process.

"Finding Lauryn was like finding a sister," said Shoretz "Because she was just a few months ahead of me in her treatment, she could completely understand and relate to the issues I was facing."

Shoretz decided that there must be others who could benefit from a similar liaison. And thus was born Sharsheret — the Hebrew word for "chain."

"It came to me in my sleep," she admitted. "As cheesy as that sounds…I woke up and I realized I hadn't uttered that word since grade school. We call our volunteer supporters 'links,' and our hope is that people add to this chain of support."

With no geographic boundaries, Sharsheret links women who otherwise would never have found each other. Sharsheret also provides education, hosting conferences and symposia on topics of interest to the Jewish cancer community.

What makes the organization unusual is its mission of targeted linking — matching young women not only on their diagnoses but on common life experiences.

"A young woman raising children can call in and ask to be connected with another young person who has already spoken to her children about losing her hair during chemotherapy," said Shoretz. "Or a single person who has had a mastectomy might call in and ask to speak with another single person who went back into the dating scene after her surgery."

One of the most common issues that women call Sharsheret to discuss is the genetic risk to Jewish women of Ashkenazi descent. Fenner understands this concern all too well, as she has the Ashkenazi mutation of the breast cancer gene. "It was sort of like, oh this was something that came to me because my ancestors came from Europe," she said. "I felt like, gosh, every cell of my body says I'm Jewish. It's affirming in some sort of weird way."

While there are plenty of support organizations for women with breast cancer, Shoretz noted that few specifically address the needs of younger women in their 20s and 30s, and they do not target the Jewish community. Yet why would the latter be so important?

"Some of the issues that we face are particularly Jewish," Shoretz explained. "For example, for Orthodox women, using the mikvah [ritual bath] after surgery or after chemotherapy when you've got no hair, or have an altered breast, raises a whole series of concerns for married women. For other women, just the notion of going through the Jewish holidays during chemotherapy or during radiation raises concerns."

Those who seek help through Sharsheret run the spectrum from Orthodox to Reform to unaffiliated.

Sari Abrams, a 39-year-old two-time breast cancer survivor, agrees that Sharsheret's uniqueness is its ability to do specific matching. Abrams lives in Los Angeles and is the wife of an Orthodox rabbi.

"The person who I was asked to speak to was also a rabbi's wife," said Abrams. "She wanted someone who would be able to share insight into the experiences of what happens when you're the spouse of a community leader and are going through something like this."

Abrams, like the other women who volunteer to be links for Sharsheret, is reaching out. "I feel like I'm in a good place now and very healthy, doing well. If there's anything positive that can come out of my experience, it's that I can help someone else."