What is Jewish about breast cancer? Sharsheret spreads message about risk

Team on a mission to help young Jewish women dealing with breast cancer

Sharsheret's recent October breast cancer awareness event in Pinecrest.
Sharsheret's recent October breast cancer awareness event in Pinecrest.

MIAMI BEACH, Fla. – When a young Jewish woman is diagnosed with breast cancer in the United States, an organization founded more than a decade ago is ready to help.

Rochelle Shoretz, who has been living with breast cancer for 13 years, wanted to make sure that other women in her shoes would not feel alone. She also wanted to spread information about the health risks the Jewish community faces.

The Center for Disease Control reports two percent of Ashkenazi Jews carry one of the specific mutations associated with hereditary breast cancer. But not enough people know that.

Briana Schwarz is helping her spread the message in Florida. In May, the organization marked a year of activism in Florida, and Shoretz was in town to celebrate. And October 12, Sharsheret held their Rock N' Run event in Pinecrest.



October is a busy month for Schwarz. On Wednesday night, she will be talking about breast cancer at Temple Beth Torah in North Miami Beach.

And on Tuesday night, she was at Miami Beach Cosmetic and Plastic Surgery Center talking about how the disease affects the Jewish community in front of about 30 people.

"Jewish families are significantly more susceptible to hereditary breast cancer and ovarian cancer," she said.  

In the regular population only 1 in 345 people carry that breast cancer gene mutation, but in Ashkenazi Jewish families 1 in 40 carry BRCA, a genetic mutation that increases the risk for breast and ovarian cancer.  

Schwarz added that she is the Florida office regional director for Sharsheret, an organization that has several programs that focus on young women and Jewish families dealing with breast cancer.

"Sharsheret connects women, who are newly diagnosed or at high risk of developing breast cancer with others who share similar diagnoses and experiences," Schwarz said. "We also help young parents and develop local support groups."



Shoretz was 28, and a busy mother of two boys. After a clerkship at the Supreme Court under Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the Columbia law school grad had plans of making partner in a big law firm.

But a breast cancer diagnosis would change her path.

She had to decide whether to have a lumpectomy, surgery to remove the tumor, or a mastectomy, surgery to remove the breast. To measure the risk of her decision, she went to see a genetic counselor.  

Her grandmother died of breast cancer in 1995. Shoretz decided to get tested for BRCA. Her results were negative, so she opted for a lumpectomy, the less aggressive option.

While she was being treated at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, she founded the breast cancer patient and survivor network in November 2001. She named it Sharsheret, after the Hebrew word for chain.

And when the cancer came back, the network was there for her. She was 37 when she learned she was a stage 4, the advanced form of breast cancer that is not curable. She had a bilateral mastectomy and is in treatment.

At 41, she recently wed Howard Past, 53, a chiropractor. Justice Ginsburg officiated the wedding.