When someone is diagnosed with cancer, she feels a range of emotions. It’s unlikely that any of them are positive, and it is likely that one of them will be a sense of being alone; that’ll be true no matter how surrounded with family and friends and love she is.
That’s one of the things that Sharsheret fights.
The Teaneck-based international organization provides cancer patients — mainly but not exclusively Jewish women — and their families with emotional support, as well as access to the information they need to make informed decisions about the choices that they must make.
When the pandemic hit and we all were forced into our houses, we all felt a range of emotions. It’s unlikely that any of them were positive, and it is likely that one of them was a sense of being alone. Even people at home with families or in Zoom touch with many friends felt isolated; love at a distance can feel like a different kind of love.
Sharsheret already knew how to provide support to people who were feeling alone, so it was less of a change for the organization’s leaders to provide more of that support online, and to provide more of it, than it was for other kinds of organizations.
On Monday, July 27, Sharsheret’s annual gala, “Midsummer Miracles,” featuring Fran Drescher, will raise money to fund its programs. (See below.)
“When coronavirus hit, not only did we not slow down, we ramped up our services,” its CEO, Elana Silber, said. “We are responding to more calls from women, more educational webinars and other efforts to educate the community.
“Just because other things stopped, just because everything else got locked down, that doesn’t mean that there was a lockdown on cancer.
“In fact, there is no lockdown on cancer.”
Among the most basic advice Sharsheret is giving out right now is that “we encourage everyone to seek advice from their healthcare professionals,” Ms. Silber said. “We encourage them to go to their providers, if that is the advice they are given.” Telemedicine is a wonderful option for many kinds of healthcare, but there are times when people with cancer have to see their doctors in person.
“Hospitals are taking every precaution, and it is now even more critical than ever to keep your appointments,” Ms. Silber said. “Do not put your cancer care on hold. Speak to your doctors. If you are encouraged to go to the office, not going to the office is more of a risk to you than coronavirus is.
“Keep in touch with your doctors!”
Sharsheret’s webinars keep cancer patients, survivors, families, and anyone else who is interested in the information they provide abreast of the medical breakthroughs that scientists continue to pursue, even as the pandemic rages. Last week, the webinar featured Dr. Sharyn Lewin, a member of Sharsheret’s board, who is a gynecological oncologist, the medical director of Holy Name Medical Center’s division of gynecologic oncology, and the founder and executive director of the Lewin Fund to Fight Women’s Cancers, and Dr. Ruth Oratz, a medical oncologist at NYU Langone. More than 200 people watched the webinar, which, like all of Sharsheret’s webinars, is on its website, sharsheret.org, and available to anyone who wants to click on it.
The webinars are interactive, Ms. Silber said; “they give women the opportunity to come together, to be supportive of each other.” The Zoom meetings allow women to connect with each other, on a peer-to-peer level, and well as to ask questions of the medical experts. “Webinars are community-building,” Ms. Silber said. “Women give each other the peer perspective, and the doctors provide the medical perspective.”
Sharsheret has been matching and connecting newly diagnosed women with women further along in their illness, or who have completed their treatments and are in remission or cancer-free and therefore can provide hard-earned and realistic advice. Because those connections often are long-distance, the pandemic hasn’t altered that model, although the need for it has become even more acute.
“There are 16,000 women in our peer support network,” Jordana Altman, Sharsheret’s marketing and communications director, said. “A woman who is considering surgery, whose doctors have given her options, can be connected to anyone anywhere in the country.” That’s always been true; now, with life during the pandemic being what it is, “women are more comfortable with Facetime or Zoom.”
These peer connections — and the counseling that Sharsheret also provides — can help women prepare for surgery or whatever else they might be facing.
Sharsheret also helps women during chemo, which more of them now have to face alone. “We encouraged people to bring a whole crew of family and friends with them to chemo, but now they can’t do that,” Ms. Altman said. “Now we become their family and friends.” The website provides meditations and other recordings that women can listen to as they stay tethered to the chemo machines. “Also, they can talk to therapists.
“What coronavirus has done is taken what we’ve always done to the next level,” Ms. Silber said. “The reason we’ve been able to pivot so successfully is that the one-on-one relationships always have been central to what we do, but the intensity has increased. More women are reaching out for more intense relationships.”
There is one way in which women may benefit from the lockdown. It gives them time to plan. One of Sharsheret’s main focuses is genetic testing and planning; knowing what your body’s genes predisposes you toward can affect your decisions. “A lot of women who had gotten the results of their testing just before coronavirus hit had the chance to consider what to do,” Ms. Silber said. “Women who are at increased risk for cancer because they carry mutations feel more empowered to take the next step because Sharsheret walked them through it; women who were working and raising families but were stuck at home had the opportunity to prepare and think, and hopefully that will lead to a better outcome.
It also gave women the luxury of time to consider who their doctors should be. “We have a program where women talk about building their medical teams,” Ms. Altman said. “Also, women whose elective surgeries were put on hold had four weeks, eight weeks, maybe even 12 weeks to plan for their prophylactic surgeries, so that when they could reschedule, they were fully prepared. They’d had a chance to talk to their social workers and peer supporters, to help them build their medical teams, to help them understand what they’d need.”
Sharsheret also offers opportunities for people actually – imagine that! – to relax and have fun. It used to offer in-person Paint Nights; now they’re online. Recently, Nikki Saucen, an art therapist, led a paint night for Sharsheret on Zoom. “The next day, a woman emailed us saying ‘This was the first time that I didn’t feel like a cancer survivor and I didn’t feel quarantined.’” Sharsheret also continues to offer the Busy Box activities that keep children happy; some are virtual and others are physical, actual boxes that families get in the mail. Links to all of them are on Sharsheret’s website.
“We have changed with the times,” Ms. Silber said. “We have adapted to this new normal, and we are prepared to adapt again. We think that at Sharsheret, we keep our finger on the pulse of change. We have a team that is very motivated to accommodate women in the best way that we can. That always has been our guiding light. How can we best serve women?”
In place of the in-person awareness-raising meeting that Sharsheret used to hold across the country, it’s gone to social media, and that’s worked. “Now we have a digital marketing strategy to educate women,” Ms. Altman said. “We’re on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and LinkedIn. We are sharing personal stories and resources on social media.
“Women who never had heard of us before have heard of us now.”
What: Presents “Midsummer Miracles,” its annual fundraiser, this year as a livestream
When: On Monday, July 27, at 8 p.m.
Featuring: Fran Drescher, the actress best known as the star of “The Nanny.” She’s also a cancer survivor and the founder and president of the nonprofit organization called “Cancer Shmancer.” There also is a list of other featured guests; read it on the website, midsummermiracles.com
Who is invited: Everyone!
To register: Go directly to midsummermiracles.com, or go to sharsheret.org and click through to Midsummer Miracles’ site.