When diagnosed with breast cancer more than two years ago, Naomi Spira was inundated with pot roast dinners from kindly neighbors. She was somewhat surprised, though, when a distant relative sent a large bag of toys with a note instructing her to dole them out to her children whenever she needed a break.
Spira decided to build upon this small, thoughtful action as a means to help other young mothers with breast cancer. A 30-year-old Orthodox mother of five from Riverdale, N.Y., Spira is part of the core group of Sharsheret, a budding nonprofit dedicated to helping young Jewish women from all denominations in their fight against breast cancer.
Sharsheret launched its Busy Box Program this winter, with Spira personally packing and shipping large white boxes filled with board games, coloring books and crafts galore to mothers undergoing cancer treatment. Each box is tailor-made for the ages and genders of the children in a given family. The packages also include resource material on broaching the topic of cancer with children.
“Our programs are designed with the busy lifestyle of a young person in mind,” said Rochelle Shoretz, the dynamo Columbia Law School graduate and former U.S. Supreme Court clerk who is the founder and executive director of Sharsheret. Shoretz, 31, formed the organization while undergoing chemotherapy after being diagnosed with Stage II breast cancer in 2001.
To date, more than two dozen boxes have gone out to families with mothers in active treatment. The Busy Box is more than just a fun surprise for the kids — it keeps them busy, providing mothers sick from chemotherapy or in need of an afternoon nap with some quiet time.
“Even though the mother could do it herself, we’ve done it for her,” said Spira, whose oldest child is now 10. That sentiment of providing a backbone of support for young mothers is exactly what Sharsheret (Hebrew for chain) is about. Since its founding in December 2001, Sharsheret has brought together some 175 women in 22 states through its core program, a national telephone-based service that connects women newly diagnosed with breast cancer with peers who have endured the same treatments and experiences.
Spira herself has served as a link for more than a dozen women. One of the first calls she received was from a chasidic woman who felt comfortable telling Spira her name only after six months. The woman shared the news of her breast cancer with just two people: her husband and Spira.
Spira spends one day a week at Sharsheret’s office in Hackensack, N.J., besides traveling to 47th Street in midtown Manhattan, where she designs jewelry at her husband’s company, A.S. Diamonds.
“I’d drop anything to talk to anyone newly diagnosed,” she added. “When I hear the difference in the panic at the beginning of the conversation and the giggling at the end, I need to do it again and again.”
As young women, callers to the network have concerns that differ from those of the typical breast cancer age group of postmenopausal women. These women are concerned with their ability to have more children, returning to the workforce in a wig and going to the mikvah, or ritual bath, bald and scarred. Some callers have not been diagnosed with cancer but, as Ashkenazi Jews, are struggling with the decision of whether to be tested to see if they carry the “breast cancer gene” known as a potential marker for breast or ovarian cancer.
One woman Sharsheret assisted is Dolly Horowitz-Fried, a 45-year-old retired public school teacher, living in Teaneck, N.J. Three years ago, she was diagnosed with Stage IV cancer, which means that the cancer has spread to other parts of the body, in her case the tailbone, and treatment is focused on extending survival time and relieving symptoms. This was 11 months after she adopted her daughter, Odelia, now 4 years old.
Horowitz-Fried called several cancer organizations, hoping to find someone else with Stage IV cancer and young children. Only Sharsheret was able to put her in touch with such a woman.
“We have our own issues of dying young and leaving kids that other people don’t have,” Horowitz-Fried said.
Horowitz-Fried’s household has received a Busy Box; she said her daughter is particularly fond of the bath toys.
“It was very exciting for her to get something special in a good way, instead of being singled out for the negative [of having a mother with cancer],” she said. “It wasn’t her birthday, but for her, it felt like it was.”
In May, the organization will launch another quality-of-life program: Best Face Forward, dealing with the cosmetic side of cancer. Sharsheret will ship a package of resources addressing side effects of cancer treatments, such as hair loss and sallow skin, with tips and suggestions from makeup artists.
“It may sound weird, but I don’t regret getting cancer,” said Spira, who takes great pride in Sharsheret’s development. “I feel like my life is much fuller. I see things differently, and I’ve amassed a group of friends that are so sensitive and caring.”
Added Shoretz: “One night before the whole idea for the organization exploded, I turned to my husband and said, ‘Do we want to do this as a family?’ He responded that, ‘I’m going to heaven on your coattails.’”
Miriam Colton is a writer living in New York City.