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Shoretz transforms cancer battle into national resource for Jewish women

Rochelle ShoretzNOTHING stops Sharsheret Executive Director Rochelle Shoretz — not exhaustion after speaking to 1,000 women at Choices or a touch of laryngitis or Stage 4 metastatic cancer.

Sitting in a restaurant in Cherry Creek, the founder of the largest network of supportive services for Jewish women dealing with breast cancer looks up from her booth.

“Hi, I’m Rochelle,” she introduces herself to the Intermountain Jewish News. “I thought it was you. I had a feeling.” Her voice may be compromised but her dedication to Sharsheret (“chain” in Hebrew) is perfectly audible.

At the Choices event, Shoretz discussed the formation of a Sharsheret support partnership with JEWISHcolorado.

“We’ll work closely with the JEWISHcolorado staff to determine needs for Jewish women throughout Colorado,” she tells the IJN. “Based on that needs assessment, we will craft culturally relevant programming for these women.”

JEWISHcolorado, which is instrumental in the planning stages of the partnership, will not earmark funds for Sharsheret. “Donors must give directly to us,” Shoretz explains.

Shoretz founded Sharsheret in 2001, right after she was diagnosed with Stage II breast cancer at age 28 (and still undergoing chemotherapy), to help young Jewish women like herself in the fight for their lives.

Since its inception, Sharsheret has responded to 30,000 personal inquiries for psychosocial support from Jewish women with concerns about diagnosis, treatment and family issues.

“We have 3,000 supporters in our peer network, 16 staff members and five clinicians,” Shoretz says proudly.

Sharsheret offers free genetic testing for BRCA, the genetic mutation that puts Jewish women at a much higher risk for hereditary breast and ovarian cancer. Testing is also available to non-Jews.

The organization has initiated 12 educational programs, including “Embrace,” intended for women living with advanced breast and ovarian cancer. Shoretz participates in this program for obvious reasons.

Forming personal connections “is inevitable,” she says. “In many ways we experience our journeys together. We celebrate milestones, and unfortunately losses. After Choices, so many women shared their cancer experiences with me.”

“Have the Talk” was launched for women in their 20’s and 30’s on campuses nationwide. “We encourage them to find out what their family history is now so they can keep on top of the screenings they need based on that history,” she says.

IN 2009, when she was 38, doctors detected a suspicious lump in Shoretz during a routine MRI. The diagnosis — Stage IV metastatic breast cancer, meaning it had spread to other organs — was grim.

When this reporter suggests that she would have been immobilized by a Stage IV diagnosis, Shoretz raises her eyebrows behind her chic brown eyeglasses.

“Are you sure?” she counters. “Are you sure?”

Divorced and the mother of two teenage sons, Shoretz abandoned a successful law practice and returned to Sharsheret as executive director.

For a woman with a chronic illness (she prefers chronic to terminal), the hours are long and draining. But there’s nothing else she’d rather be doing.

“It’s hard,” she says of her medical condition. “But like any serious illness, it’s manageable. There are times when I’m busy with treatments and times when I’m telling my 16-year-old to clean his room or going to parent-teacher conferences. It’s an otherwise very typical life.”

Shoretz, now 41, is Orthodox. While she relegates certain philosophical inquiries to the “no comment” bin, she still goes straight to the heart.

She says everyone deals with spirituality — whether it’s in the form of G-d or meditation or introspection — differently.

“Facing a serious illness is a very individualized, personal journey,” she says. “I focus on my work in the Jewish community. This is what gives added depth to my spirituality.

“The whole reason behind Sharsheret was to address the feeling that people were experiencing breast cancer alone,” Shoretz says.

“Every cancer experience is unique, and at the end of the day everyone walks through that door by themselves.

“Yet when you’re in a community of people who understand, you’re not walking blindly.

“You have the experiences of others to guide you; the resources of an organization at your side; other women with whom you can connect if you feel all alone. But you are never actually alone.”

Countless people refer to Shoretz as a heroine. The very mention of the accolade makes her wince.

“I’m no heroine!” she laughs. “I feel blessed to be at the helm of this amazing organization and fortunate to be able to welcome thousands of volunteers to help us grow and reach out to families.”

Shoretz and her sons, now 18 and 16, have had numerous gut-level dialogues about cancer.

“We have our own very personal relationship with cancer. I’ve had conversations a mom should never be forced to have with her kids — life, death, adult topics I never imagined bringing up when they were children.

“But they are incredible young men. I’m really proud of them and the open way we can talk about cancer. And they believe in the future of Sharsheret.”

ASKED whether it’s harder to be diagnosed with Stage II cancer at age 28 or Stage IV at 38, Shoretz doesn’t skip a beat. “The second diagnosis is typically harder,” she says.

“The first diagnosis comes around like a freight train. You’re caught totally off guard. You tell yourself you are going to do everything you can to get better and you get through it.

“When you hear the second diagnosis, you think, ‘But I’ve already done everything I can to get better! So what am I going to use to inspire and motivate me to make it this time?’

“You have to reach even deeper to discover what’s going to help you through the second time.”

As a young girl, Shoretz envisioned herself as a fiction writer, journalist or Broadway ingénue. “I was the next Annie!” she laughs. “They just didn’t find me in time!”

Cancer, she insists, has not rewritten her narrative arc.

“I’m in charge of my story. G-d is in charge of my story. Cancer is not in charge of my story.”

Shoretz mentions that she’s engaged. The usual questions follow. What’s he like? Where did you meet?

She picks up her fork, then sets it down.

“He’s a very nice guy I met on JDate. Yes, really. I think he’s an incredible guy.

“When you enter into a relationship, you never know what’s ahead. He is aware of this. There are no guarantees for anyone in this life, whether you have a serious illness or you’re perfectly healthy.

“The true value of a partnership is recognizing that there will be unanticipated turns along the road. So you hold on to each other.”

Intimations of mortality aside, Shoretz is too focused on life to give them more than a passing nod.

“I love life. I really do. I love the people in it. I love everything about it. I don’t see the clouds. I always see the sun.

“There are so many ways that people can change the world. They just don’t always have that quantifiable ‘something’ they can touch or see.

“I don’t think about what comes after this life. I spend my time living, loving my kids and thinking about Sharsheret. By the way, don’t forget to include our website or toll free number: www.sharsheret.org or 866-474-2774.”

And that’s for the record.

Copyright © 2013 by the Intermountain Jewish News

Andrea Jacobs

IJN Senior Writer | andrea@ijn.com

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