October is a month of so many good things. The changing leaves of the east coast which I try to visit yearly, fighting with my kids over Halloween (they like trick-or-treating, I don’t). My first son was born in October so this month is particularly significant for me. That being said, October is also Breast Cancer Awareness Month.
My paternal grandmother had breast cancer (involving a radical mastectomy in the 1950s) so I grew up with a conscious but vague understanding of breast cancer. “Cancer” was a word to be said in hushed tones, and we rarely spoke about it in front of my grandmother, since she didn’t like to talk about it at all. As my grandmother got older and I moved her to live near us in Los Angeles, I spent a lot of time with her and sometimes she would mention needing a new bra, and that I shouldn’t forget about her “falsie” needing to be accounted for (that was her old-fashioned word for her prosthetic bra insert).
My best friend’s mom–who was also my mom’s best friend–lost her battle with cancer four years ago. I know so many touched by breast cancer, and I am sure you do too. It’s heart breaking every time you hear of a new diagnosis.
Flash forward to 2015. The global conversation has shifted. We openly discuss breast cancer in most arenas. We also openly talk about reconstructive surgery, in particular, after the critically complicated decision some women make to preemptively have breasts removed as in the case of Christina Applegate and Angelina Jolie. Thankfully, these and many more related conversations have become part of accepted and welcomed conversation. There are many women empowered by these conversations.
Because Jews are not just a religion, but rather an ethnic population, we have genetic components that repeat in our populations more frequently than in other communities’ genetics. (This results largely from the population bottleneck that occurred several hundred years ago as well as an historic and cultural emphasis on Jews marrying Jews.)
There is a documented increased risk of breast cancer for Jewish women with one in 40 men and women of Ashkenazi (Central or Eastern European) descent carrying a genetic mutation that greatly increases the risk of developing breast cancer and ovarian cancer.
A lot of people don’t know about this and there are ways to find out if you are at risk, receive assistance if you are, and receive support and services if you are diagnosed with cancer. There is a wonderful resource for our community called Sharsheret, which means “chain” in Hebrew. It was founded by Rochelle L. Shoretz, who was diagnosed at 28 with breast cancer herself, when there was a paucity of resources for Jewish women in her situation.
Sharsheret is “the Jewish response to breast cancer.” They provide information, resources, and support every step of the way for free; from screening assistance to medical support to emotional and financial support and much more, whatever stage you are in: Researching, under a physician’s care, recovering from treatment, and living as a survivor.
This October, in honor of Breast Cancer Awareness Month, Sharsheret is partnering with individuals, synagogues, and communities across the country to hold Pink Shabbat programs, educating women and families, and raising awareness of breast cancer in the Jewish community. Visit the site for more information and to see if your community is participating!
Rochelle L. Shoretz died this past May. May her memory be for a blessing, and may the work she inspired help the Jewish community as much as she dreamed it could.