Jewish women with breast cancer

“Wear Pink for Tammi” Day

After being diagnosed with breast cancer, some people want to keep the news to themselves or share it only with a small group of loved ones. I was the opposite. I wanted to tell all of my family and friends. I wanted to serve as a “cautionary tale” to prompt my friends in their 30’s and 40’s to perform regular self-exams and get annual mammograms.  I also wanted to surround myself with as many well-wishers as possible.
 
I am fortunate to have a wide circle of friends and family who are loving and supportive.  People from all over the country asked me, “What can I do?  How can I help?” I came up with the idea of making my mastectomy date “Wear Pink for Tammi Day”. I asked everyone to send me pictures of themselves, their family members, and even their pets wearing pink as a way to cheer me up after my surgery.
 
The response was incredible.  On July 14th, the day of my surgery, I received more than 50 photos from friends, acquaintances, and friends-of-friends I didn’t even know, all of them wearing pink and wishing me well.  When my parents and husband visited me in the hospital they wore matching t-shirts airbrushed with my name and a pink ribbon. When I came home from the hospital, our nanny had decorated the entire house in pink.  She and my young sons made a photo collage on pink construction paper of themselves wearing pink and hung it in my bedroom so I could admire the photos as I recuperated in bed. My neighbor’s daughter made a pink beaded bracelet for me and I wear it every day.

I understand that this approach might not be meaningful to everyone, but for me, it was the best I could ever ask for. I felt completely enveloped in love and support which kept me in a bright disposition even on days when I was in pain or scared.  I believe that this love and support helped fuel my recovery and I feel truly blessed to have such wonderful people in my life.  I am very grateful to Sharsheret’s staff for the care packages of literature and comfort items they sent, and especially for providing ongoing support and connecting me with peer supporters. I recently signed up to serve as a peer supporter for other women facing breast cancer and look forward to sharing the kindness and compassion I received with the women of Sharsheret.

Thanksgiving Turkey

It’s turkey time again! I don’t eat the bird anymore. Perhaps it’s because after my bout with breast cancer, I lost my appetite for the flying creature. For me, the holiday turkey became analogous to my breast cancer experience. I felt like I was THE Thanksgiving Turkey of 2009 - cut, seasoned, stuffed, and carved.

My breast cancer ordeal began in April of 2009. Shortly after my diagnosis, I underwent a prophylactic mastectomy at Memorial Sloan Kettering followed by a powerful chemotherapy combination. On my first day of chemo, as I sat anxiously in the waiting room, I struck up a conversation with the woman sitting next to me who turned out to be Sharsheret’s Founder Rochelle Shoretz. After speaking with her briefly, I no longer thought of my situation and myself, but of her strength and resolute courage to face down breast cancer.

My reconstruction and oophorectomy surgeries were simultaneously done days before Thanksgiving, which truly marked the end of my cancer treatment and recovery. I was finished with my surgeries and therapies and hopefully cancer-free. My 43-year-old body and mind had taken a beating over the course of 7 months, but my spirit was never broken. I was truly thankful to be with everyone who loved me.

And so, Thanksgiving took on a new meaning for me. It became a time to reflect on the things I was grateful for - like surviving breast cancer. It was a time to give thanks, not just for the obvious, but for the thousands of fortunate moments, the multitude of blessings, the doctors and nurses at MSK, and the incredible love and support of family, friends, and community during my personal journey.  Ironically, two years to the date, I am the Thanksgiving turkey once again! My new incisions and stitches from nipple reconstruction are a reminder of the past and all that I am grateful for - two years clean and cancer-free! 

I recently met Rochelle again at an event.  I was so happy to see her and know that she was well.  I am now thrilled to be a peer supporter in Sharsheret’s national network and provide support to other women. I want to inspire women with breast cancer like Rochelle unknowingly did for me during my crisis.

ROSH HASHANAH MESSAGE: Rising Up

This year my resolution is to finally learn how to bake challah. I have tried, not so successfully, in the past.  I am in awe of the process.  I take simple ingredients -water, yeast, flour, and salt - and transform them into beautiful, delicious bread deserving of a holy blessing.  But the transformation is not an easy one.

There seems to be so many choices and as a novice challah baker, I become overwhelmed.  Do I choose the recipe that includes sugar or honey?  Should I follow the recipe offered by my friends or family?  I haven’t even begun to bake and already I am overwhelmed.

I begin by putting the yeast in the water.  The condition of the water has to be just right, not too cold and not too hot.  And then I wait.  Is the yeast taking?  Do I see it frothing or bubbling?  Can I trust what I see?  I take the chance and move on to the next step.  The flour has to be added slowly until the dough is formed.  I knead the dough for what feels like forever.  I place it in a bowl, where it sits covered and in darkness, and I wait again.  Will it rise?  I have no choice but to be patient.  If it doesn’t rise, I have to begin again.  If it rises, I will move on to the next step.  It does, and as I set about shaping the dough, I’m faced with more decisions.  Should I make a three-braided challah or a six-braided challah, or perhaps a round challah at this time of year?  After I shape the challah it must rise again, so back it goes under cover and into the darkness.  More waiting.

It emerges from the darkness and I brush egg over my challah and place it in the oven.  I am hopeful.  There seems to be a light at the end of the tunnel.  I inhale the delicious smell of challah as it fills my home with an enticing aroma for all who enter to enjoy, and bask in the glory of my accomplishment.  I did it!  I have taken these ingredients and turned them into a thing of nourishment and beauty and I have learned so much from the process.

When we are faced with illness, we can feel overwhelmed by the choices and what lies ahead.  Whose guidance do we seek?  Who do we trust?  We are left with questions.  Will these treatments work?  I won’t know immediately.  I can only do the best that I can do.  I will have to wait and see.  It is hard to be patient.  Not knowing can feel frightening, but it’s important to remember that things can change in the darkness.  Sometimes we can feel kneaded and stretched, while at other times we can experience the joy that fills our homes and our souls, like the smell of the challah in our midst.

The light at the end of the tunnel can be hopeful no matter where we find ourselves in this journey.  We talk about the new normal - seeing life through a different lens after a cancer diagnosis - but in many ways, I now think about it as the new and improved normal.  It is within our reach to bring meaning to our transformation.

This year, as you drizzle honey over your challah, take the time to reflect and find the sweetness in your transformation.  I wish all of you a meaningful and sweet New Year.

By: Shera Dubitsky, Sharsheret Clinical Supervisor

Support is Vital for Recovery and Healing

2007 was a challenging year.  My aunt was facing brain cancer, my mom had passed away a few years earlier from lung cancer, and my grandmother passed a year before that.  I felt exhausted and vaguely unwell.  I attributed my symptoms to caring for relatives, raising a family, running a small production company, and just getting older.  I had a physical, blood work, a pap smear, and a mammogram in December and the results were normal so I stopped complaining.  I was 56 years old.

In March of 2008 I received an email with the subject line:  “Send to all the women you know”.  Usually those get trashed immediately, but I opened this one because it was from my cousin.  The title was: An Eye Opener on Ovarian Cancer.  I read it and was stunned to find all of my symptoms listed.  I called my doctor and requested the CA125 blood test and was told (just as the email predicted) that it was an unreliable test and I should make an appointment to talk about my concerns.  Knowing that wedding season was approaching and I would soon be on my feet fourteen hours a day as a videographer, I felt an urgency to find out if something was wrong.  I called The Cleveland Clinic and made an appointment with a gastroenterologist for that afternoon. 

During the exam, the doctor said he “felt something” in my lower abdomen and scheduled a CT scan.  This was on a Tuesday.  On Thursday, the results were back and I was scheduled to see my gynecologist for an ultrasound to examine huge masses on my ovaries.  By Friday, I knew it was probably cancer and surgery was necessary to confirm the suspicion.

Ten days later, I was diagnosed with stage III ovarian cancer and underwent a full hysterectomy.  Little did I know that I would need several more surgeries and chemotherapy.  I am blessed to have good friends and a wonderful family that enveloped me with love and support.  Having always been a caregiver, I was not accustomed to being cared for.  I was overwhelmed by the kindness people showed me.  My cousins shopped for and purchased a wig with me and parents of children who attended day school with my children ten years before cooked meals on chemo days, sent weekly cards, and delivered pots of soup.  One friend came with me to every chemo treatment and took notes so she could advocate medically and report to my out-of-town children.  My sons became my “medical team”, researching, reviewing, and advising.  Prayers were said for me all around the world.  I was in awe of the collective goodness that nurtured me through those tough times.

Between the rounds of chemotherapy, I was tested and found to have the BRCA2 mutation that is common among Ashkenazi Jews.  At the doctor's office, I picked up a booklet that explained the genetic mutation and its connection to breast cancer and ovarian cancer.  The booklet was published by Sharsheret.  I educated myself on BRCA2 through links on Sharsheret's website and made life-altering decisions based on what I learned. 

When I became well enough, I contacted Sharsheret’s Link Program Coordinator and asked to join Sharsheret as a peer supporter for other women diagnosed with cancer.  If I can help by sharing my experience, my time, or whatever is needed, I want to do that.  Sharsheret is part of the collective goodness I experienced and I can give back through this organization.  Recently I delivered Sharsheret brochures to two hospitals in hopes that others will become aware that support exists and is just a phone call away.

By: Fran Goldlust of Beachwood, Ohio, Sharsheret Peer Supporter

Know Your Family History

For those of us growing up in the 1950’s, cancer was not an often used word.  It was referred to as “the big C” or by other euphemisms and was rarely discussed in public.  That’s not to say the disease was uncommon, but rather that the topic just wasn’t discussed. 

In 1960, my mother was diagnosed with cancer.  She had surgery during the summer when I was away at camp and I was not told.  Later, I found out that my mother had some type of “women’s cancer.”  She had a full recovery and so the topic was never again discussed.  My mother died of natural causes 41 years later.  A year after my mother’s diagnosis, her sister was diagnosed with cancer.  She died two years later.  I was never told what type of cancer my aunt had and I never thought to ask.  Cancer was a dreaded disease and not something one talked about.

In the mid 1990’s, my aunt’s son, who is a physician, called to tell me about a new test for ovarian cancer- the test for the BRCA gene mutation.  I couldn’t understand why this was so important until he told me that both my mother and aunt had had ovarian cancer.  At the time, the test was not being offered in Washington where my mother lived.  The trip to Philadelphia, where the test was being administered, would have been too difficult for my 92 year-old mother so she was not tested.

Then I was faced with a dilemma – should I be tested?  After deciding that I would not have prophylactic surgery if I found that I was BRCA positive, I decided not to be tested for the gene.  I instead opted to have a yearly pelvic sonogram and a yearly CA125 blood test.  I followed this regimen religiously.

About three years ago, I finally decided to be tested for the BRCA gene mutation.   The results came back negative.  I felt a tremendous sense of relief until I spoke to my nephew who is an oncologist.   He told me that the results didn’t prove much.  Had my mother tested positive and I tested negative, it would be cause for rejoicing.  Since my mother had never been tested, it was still possible that some other gene was linked to her cancer.

These words proved to be prophetic.  A few months later I had my annual pelvic sonogram and a growth was found on one of my ovaries.  It was suggested that I see an oncologist.  Surgery was scheduled.  The pathology indicated that the growth was malignant and I would need chemotherapy.  The good news was that it was Stage 1A - only one ovary was affected and the cancer had not spread.  

The early detection of my cancer was due to knowing my family history.  That’s why my husband and I, through the Gorlin Family Foundation, support Sharsheret’s ovarian cancer program, and especially the campus education program.  We want to get the message out that it is imperative to know your family history.  Knowing my family history has made all the difference for me.  Find out yours.

By: Sue Gorlin of Silver Spring, Maryland, Sharsheret Peer Supporter

Celebrating Life

My journey with ovarian cancer began when I arrived home from a fantastic winter break vacation and went for my annual gynecologic exam.  At my exam, I mentioned to my doctor that I was experiencing heavy bleeding.  He suggested we do an ultrasound and that’s when my life changed forever.
 
Without sharing all the details, I had many tests that led to two major surgeries. The good news was that my tumor was found before anything had spread throughout my body.  I completed chemotherapy, which I was able to tolerate fairly well.  A year later, during one of my regular CT scans, we found a small recurrence.  I consulted two doctors and decided on a very heavy regimen consisting of two very strong drugs.  With three young children at home, you can imagine the stress of wanting to feel good and be strong.

I changed my diet and I also changed my outlook on life.  I try to enjoy each day with my family and try not to sweat all the small stuff.  Throughout my experience, my goal for myself was to remain positive and take each day at a time.  With an unbelievable support system from my family, friends, my community, and Sharsheret, I was able to not only get through this, but was able to continue living my life as normally as possible. 

In partnership with the Sharsheret Supports program, I developed a local support group for the women in my community who were touched by cancer.  Through our Sharsheret Supports group, women, including me, have connected with one another and found comfort, knowledge, and friendship.  It means so much to me to be part of such an incredible network of women.  I pray every day that I will heal and continue celebrating this life - the life that God has given me!

By: Vicki Hamersmith of Coral Gables, Florida, Sharsheret Peer Supporter and Sharsheret Supports Facilitator

A Very Special Pink Day

Today, I did something I have never done. Today, instead of running away, I ran towards something very special. Today, I felt like an important part of an incredible group of people. I have spent many months trying to convince myself that I am not part of this group. But I am and I am so lucky to be here. Today was my first Race for the Cure in NYC. I have been told by fellow survivors that the Race is a very meaningful experience and now I understand why. An estimated 20,000 people were involved today. How can I feel alone when that many people care?

I was joined today by my spectacular parents. They were by my side today like they are each and every day of my somewhat complicated and amusing life. I was also honored to have two of my closest and most important friends walk with us. To me, their participation represented all of the special people in my life who have been there for me and my family. Thank you all for your love and support. I need it now more than ever. I am focusing on the future. I am focusing on helping other women through this experience. And I am focusing on the New Year we are about to begin. May we all be blessed with health, happiness, and great things.

Today is a special day.

 

A Sharsheret Peer Supporter shares her first experience as a member of award-winning Team Sharsheret at Race for the Cure NYC.

Right There Beside You

We're always assuring you - our Team Sharsheret athletes - that we're cheering you on to the finish line. This year, our cheers may sound a bit louder. Ellen, Elana and I will share a relay spot, and Rebecca of our staff will compete in the Triathlon this Sunday. Literally and figuratively, we are doing this together - raising awareness about breast cancer in the Jewish community and welcoming hundreds of new friends to the Sharsheret family. We are grateful that you've chosen to be a part of our Team, and even more grateful that you've chosen to be a part of our mission. On Sunday, when you look around and marvel at all that you've accomplished through training, I hope our thanks, and the gratitude of the thousands of women and families we are blessed to serve, gives you that added push to the finish line. We're cheering you on. And we're right there beside you.

With deep thanks,
Rochelle

Take on our 10-day challenge!

Only 10 days until the New York City Triathlon and our staff members Rochelle, Elana, and Ellen are ready to take on the triathlon as a relay team if YOU can help us get 1,000 new Facebook fans! Tell your friends to "like" our page – www.facebook.com/sharsheret.org - and post your name on our wall as the person who referred them and not only will you and one lucky friend be eligible to win an iTunes gift card, but Elana will swim in the Hudson, Rochelle will ride her bike on the West Side Highway, and Ellen will lace up her sneakers and cross the finish line in Central Park next Sunday! We're ready to take on the 10-day challenge - are you?!?

Helping Us Help You

By: Ruthie Arbit, Sema Heller Netivot Shalom Summer Intern

After 10 weeks of interning at Sharsheret, I can safely say that I went from a state of bewilderment from when I initially heard about Sharsheret in April to a state of admiration. Then, I was struck by the cause; I didn’t know that breast cancer and ovarian cancer were Jewish issues and I wondered what Sharsheret was doing to help Jewish women facing these illnesses. Now, I am in awe as I think about the callers, the peer supporters, and the volunteers who help us at Sharsheret do what we do.

The Sharsheret office is an incredible place. On any given day there is a string of devoted volunteers popping in and out, Team Sharsheret athletes coming in to meet with the staff, and the daily visit by the postman who picks up packages filled with hundreds of breast cancer and ovarian cancer brochures to be delivered to women and families, health care professionals, conferences, and Jewish organizations nationwide. Add all of this to the hard work that the dedicated staff at Sharsheret puts in – providing emotional support to women living with cancer and their families, answering countless questions from health care professionals about the unique needs of their Jewish patients, planning outreach events to spread the word about Sharsheret’s programs and services, coordinating medical symposia, and processing generous contributions from donors. It’s no surprise then that after only 10 years since its inception, Sharsheret has become an esteemed national organization with 11 programs, more than 1,200 peer supporters, and thousands of volunteers and supporters.

However, what impresses me most about Sharsheret are the women. The women who call Sharsheret for support as they ponder the potentially life-changing decision of whether or not to undergo genetic testing, the women who have just finished their final round of chemo and are already volunteering to be peer supporters, and those who are living with metastatic cancer and finding value in every day moments.

All of these women amaze me.

So, as I near the end of my internship, I want to say thank you to the women whose strength fuels the energy of Sharsheret. I am sure that this won’t be the last time I will be surprised by the amazing work of Sharsheret, its staff, and its women. Although my internship is ending, my connection to Sharsheret will remain strong. I look forward to joining Sharsheret’s volunteer force and contributing my time and skills to this wonderful organization.