Sharsheret is Hebrew for chain. And Sharsheret, a national non-profit organization, headquartered in Teaneck, certainly lives up to its name’s image, through the chain of connections it builds among women, families and communities that are facing breast cancer and ovarian cancer.
Sharsheret is unique in that it is the only national organization that specializes in personalized support of young women and families of all Jewish backgrounds who are at increased genetic risk of developing these cancers. Through its offerings of culturally-relevant support and educational outreach to those who are newly diagnosed, in treatment and post-treatment, Sharsheret saves lives. While their expertise is in young women and Jewish families as related to breast cancer and ovarian cancer, Sharsheret programs also serve all women and men. At Sharsheret, the full spectrum of diversity within communities is recognized and embraced. Anyone reaching out to Sharsheret is heard and treated with respect, regardless of economic or social status, race, color, ethnic or national origin, creed, religion, political belief, gender, sexual orientation, marital status or age.
While October is designated as Breast Cancer Awareness Month, Sharsheret works year-round for Jewish women and men to raise awareness about family genetic history links for Jews on both their paternal and maternal sides. One in eight women will be diagnosed with breast cancer in her lifetime. If you have a family history of breast cancer, you may be wondering what your chances are of inheriting this condition.
Thanks to genetic research, this is a much easier question to answer. Mutations in two genes—BRCA1 and BRCA2—have been identified as a primary genetic cause of breast cancer. In addition to BRCA1 and BRCA2, there are other genes including CHEK2, PALB2 and ATM that can increase the risk of developing breast cancer if you inherit a mutation from either your father or mother. Not everyone with a genetic mutation will develop cancer and not everyone diagnosed with breast cancer inherits it through their family. However, carrying mutations on specific genes does greatly increase one’s risk of developing breast cancer during their lifetime.
All Ashkenazi Jewish women and men carry a 1-in-40 risk of carrying a BRCA mutation as compared to a 1-in-400 chance in the general population. This increases the likelihood of developing breast, ovarian, pancreatic or prostate cancer, melanoma or male breast cancer. So, as the Jewish community’s response to breast cancer, Sharsheret urges that now is the time to initiate conversations with our doctors, become educated and raise awareness about how people with BRCA and other genetic mutations have a 50% chance of passing the mutation on to each of their children. Sharsheret educates both the cancer and Jewish communities about the risk and provides a continuum of care of culturally relevant support for those at risk of developing cancer, those diagnosed with cancer and those grappling with issues of recurrence or survivorship.
Sharsheret provides a wide array of important services. They can connect with you one-on-one, provide peer support, conduct free and customized genetics conversations with their genetic counselors for individuals and families, guide young parents, address side effects of treatment, provide financial assistance, support family, friends, and caregivers, present health care and educational symposia, coordinate campus programming, and offer culturally relevant resources.
Since the world of genetics is constantly changing, upgraded genetic testing can sometimes identify a mutation that was previously missed. Sharsheret hosts more than 500 life-saving in-person and virtual educational events each year to share the most up-to-date information. Sharsheret advises that doctors recommend that anyone who was tested before 2014 undergo genetic testing again, both to retest for the BRCA mutation and also screen for mutations that have more recently been identified and have been linked to elevated risk of breast, ovarian, prostate and other cancers. Knowing one’s risk and understanding one’s options can empower individuals to take control of their bodies and their lives, enabling them to make informed and life-saving decisions.
Daniel Gorlin’s story is one example of the importance of genetic testing and the work Sharsheret does. Daniel’s Sharsheret story began over 50 years ago, when his maternal grandmother was diagnosed with ovarian cancer and his great aunt died of ovarian cancer. When Daniel’s sister was diagnosed with breast cancer, Daniel’s mother got retested and this time she was told that she carried a BRCA1/BRCA2 genetic mutation, specifically a deletion, which was missed on earlier testing.
“My family knows what it is to go through cancer. My family knows what it is to need support, to need guidance, to need information and to know about your family history. Sharsheret provides it all,” said Daniel.
In recognition of Sharsheret’s important contributions to women’s health, Sharsheret was named a recipient of the New York State Innovation in Breast Cancer Early Detection and Research Award and selected as a member of the LIVESTRONG Young Adult Alliance. Sharsheret was appointed a seat on the Federal Advisory Committee on Breast Cancer in Young Women under the auspices of the Federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“Sharsheret strives every day to ensure that every Jewish woman and family, major medical center, synagogue and college campus will benefit from its critical cancer programs and that no Jewish woman or family will face breast or ovarian cancer alone,” said Sharsheret’s CEO Elana Silber. Sharsheret is truly the Jewish breast and ovarian cancer community. This was the dream of founder Rochelle L. Shoretz, a”h. And Sharsheret is fulfilling this dream every day by saying “We are wherever you are.”
To schedule a free and confidential conversation with Sharsheret’s genetic counselor or to be connected to a Sharsheret social worker, contact Sharsheret at [email protected] or  474-2774. Learn more about Sharsheret at www.sharsheret.org.
Susan R. Eisenstein is a longtime Jewish educator, passionate about creating special, innovative activities for her students. She is also passionate about writing about Jewish topics and about Israel. Susan has two master’s degrees and a doctorate in education from Columbia University.