By Natalie Jacobs
The national rate of breast cancer diagnoses is staggering, with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reporting more than 211,000 diagnoses in 2009 (the most recent data available), and more than 40,000 deaths from the disease that year. Recently, the National Cancer Institute’s Surveillance Epidemiology and End Results (SEER) studied data from 1975-2009 to determine the breast cancer risk in American women. The report found that women at age 30 have a one in 277 chance of developing breast cancer in the next 10 years, while women age 40 have a one in 68 chance, and women at age 50 have a one in 42 chance.
Sharsheret, a non-profit organization based in Teaneck, N.J., whose name in Hebrew means “chain,” reports that Ashkenazi Jewish women carry a slightly higher risk than do women in general, with 1 in 40 carrying a gene mutation that is likely to cause breast cancer. While many national groups are working to fund cancer research and providing support for those are genetically predisposed to, currently are diagnosed with or are recovering from breast cancer, Sharsheret is the only one with a focus on Jewish women and their families.
The organization believes that talking about the disease and the risk factors can go a long way in early detection and successful recovery.
“We understand that breast cancer is not just a Jewish women’s issue,” explains Elana Silber, director of operations at Sharsheret, “but rather it is a Jewish community issue.” They work to engage the whole community, including the next generation, by collaborating with on-campus Jewish and philanthropic organizations on more than 100 high schools and colleges to raise awareness and encourage conversations with family members about medical histories.
Jewish Federation of San Diego County’s Young Adult Division brought Sharsheret to the city for the first time in 2011 to host a Pink Shabbat dinner, where young people from around the county gathered to start the breast cancer conversation amongst themselves in a welcoming environment. The program continued in 2012.
Sharsheret is also one of the philanthropies for the national Jewish sorority Alpha Epislon Phi (AEPhi), which has local chapters at San Diego State University and the University of California San Diego.
“We have hosted three Pink Shabbat dinners,” says Katie Borts, current president of AEPhi’s SDSU chapter. “We ask everyone to wear something pink, and once we made pink challah bread, which was really fun. We also do fundraising events on campus to generate profits for Sharsheret throughout the year.”
Given the known risk of breast cancer in Jewish women, Sharsheret also offers genetic counseling, through which women can speak one-on-one with an experienced geneticist. The “breast cancer gene,” BRCA, belongs to a class of genes known as tumor suppressors, and genetics researchers at the National Institutes of Health have found more than 1,000 mutations of the gene to be associated with the development of breast cancer. With genetic testing, those concerned with the hereditary risk of breast cancer can choose to find out whether or not they have any of the known cancer-causing mutations. But the results of the test can leave more questions than answers, so the kind of personal support Sharseret offers can go a long way.
That personal connection is what started Sharsheret back in 2001, when a handful of young women sat around founder Rochelle Sortez’s kitchen table talking about recent diagnoses or concerns of being at risk. It has carried through to Sharsheret’s current programming, which works to support women and their families before diagnosis, during treatment and through survivorship.
The organization’s Peer Support program speaks to this whole spectrum by offering one-on-one or group support for women diagnosed with breast cancer. The “links,” as they are called, are matched from a database of more than 1,800 people ranging from relatives of cancer victims to people currently battling the disease to recent and long-term survivors. San Diego is home to Sharsheret Peer Supporters from La Jolla to Encinitas, San Carlos to Downtown and out to Temecula.
Rabbi Yael Ridberg of Congregation Dor Hadash in San Diego was connected with one of the links in this chain when she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2003.
“When you yourself are suddenly in the position of dealing with doctor offices and chemotherapy and these things you never imagined you’d have to deal with,” Ridberg shares, “you really need the friendship and camaraderie that women who have been through it before can offer.”
After a successful recovery and continued involvement with Sharsheret, Rabbi Ridberg is now patiently waiting for her link. “No one wants to go through this,” she says, “but if you go through it having learned something, it should be good for something. That is my hope for what I can do now.”
An increased focus on the quality of healthcare in this country has caused survivorship to take on new meaning for federal granting organizations and because of this, Sharsheret recently received a three-year grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to create and disseminate survivorship resources. As part of this grant, the group has developed a kit available upon request that includes a healthy cookbook, DVD and care plan for working with women who have recently completed treatment.
“The new survivorship program has been generating a lot of energy and excitement, empowering Jewish women as they enter the survivorship phase of their cancer journey,” says Sharsheret’s Silber. “Healthcare professionals across the country are looking to provide culturally relevant support, and Sharsheret’s resources specifically address the unique needs of Jewish breast cancer survivors.”
By continuing to educate and encourage open dialogue about the risks of breast cancer, Sharsheret is helping people make informed decisions about their health and their future. And though the odds may be seem to be stacked against some people, it’s always nice to know someone who understands is only a phone call away.
For more information on Sharsheret, visit www.sharsheret.org or call (201) 833-2341.