This past January, Rochelle Shoretz had just celebrated her son’s bar mitzvah in Israel and returned home, when she had a routine MRI, necessary after she’d been successfully treated for Stage 2 breast cancer seven years earlier.
She wasn’t particularly concerned about the scan, having already made it past the critical five-year mark with no evidence of cancer. But something showed up and she had a biopsy. The next night, bandages hidden under her clothes, she welcomed friends and family to her home in Teaneck, N.J., for a local celebration of the bar mitzvah.
“I chose to keep the news to myself. I didn’t want to taint the event,” said Shoretz, 37 and a single mother of two boys, ages 13 and 12. “I knew cancer had re-entered our lives.”
The prognosis was grim: Stage 4, metastatic cancer, though she declined to specify where it spread. “I just don’t want people watching all my different body parts and wondering what’s going to fall off next,” she said with a laugh.
Yet, even while living with what she calls a “chronic disease,” the recurrence prompted Shoretz to do a professional U-turn and return as executive director to Sharsheret, the breast cancer support organization she founded in 2001 during her first fight against the disease.
So she left her very successful law career, which included a yearlong clerkship under U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, and is now back full time at Sharsheret.
“With the energy I have now, Sharsheret is where I need to be,” she said. Her hope is to grow her organization in an ailing economy, while receiving treatment for a disease that is taking a toll on her.
“The treatment is going well,” she said. “It has some impact on the quality of my life. The hot flashes are difficult and keep me up at night, and I’m sad I have to spend so much time at the doctor’s office when I’d rather be out jogging or having dinner with the boys.”
She notes that the recurrence has been hard for everyone in the family, and she has taken steps to inform her boys — “strong little men” — about her disease. “We introduced them to my doctors, and are doing everything we can to help them feel supported during a very, very difficult time.”
Shoretz, who is by nature upbeat and driven, says that she now looks at her cancer as “a chronic illness,” one that she is battling alone. She was divorced from her husband in 1996. But Shoretz is quick with a positive outlook. “People used to think of Stage 4 as a death sentence. That’s all people focused on. Now we view it as something you can live with and live well with for years. It can be a few years or it can be 20 years.”
Her focus remains on her children and her organization. Today, Sharsheret has a staff of eight and hundreds of volunteers, and runs 10 national programs from its office in Teaneck.
“Sharsheret started as an effort to collect the stories of women like me in the Jewish community who were dealing with issues of parenting, career and fertility. It became a larger effort because other cancer organizations started asking us for culturally sensitive resources,” Shoretz said.
The organization has fielded some 19,000 calls from women facing breast cancer and from their family members, along with professionals in the field who reach out for support and information. Sharsheret — Hebrew for “chain” — has distributed 8,000 copies of booklets on topics from Jewish genetics and breast cancer, to support for the Jewish family, to a guide for mikveh attendants on assisting women being treated for breast cancer.
The organization runs occasional medical symposia and links women who have personally confronted breast cancer in the past with those facing it now or who are concerned they may have to deal with it because of a family history of the disease. The Link Program has connected 800 women in 35 states.
It all began with $50,000 contributed by friends and family members and with donated office space. Today Sharsheret, which has been recognized five years in a row by the philanthropic organization the Slingshot Fund for being innovative and effective, has a budget of $800,000 and expects to grow to about $1 million in the coming year, Shoretz says.
Her expectation that she can grow Sharsheret even at a time of economic crisis, when many not-for-profits are struggling just to stay open, is part of Shoretz’s overall approach to life, even one in which she is fighting a life-threatening disease.
“I really am so positive, even in the dark of night,” she said.
“I’ve had an amazing marriage. I have two wonderful boys, an interesting career, have had love and great friends and have traveled.
“I’ve had such a rich and meaningful life. Of course I wish I had more time. I would love to see grandchildren, to see weddings, to be a part of these amazing things for more time, but I love life and don’t want to spend any of it mourning the loss of that which I can’t have. I’d much rather embrace that which I do.”
Debra Nussbaum Cohen is an award-winning journalist who covers philanthropy, religion, gender and other contemporary issues. Her work has been published in The New York Times, Wall Street Journal and New York magazine, among many other publications. She authored the book “Celebrating Your New Jewish Daughter: Creating Jewish Ways to Welcome Baby Girls into the Covenant.”
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