By Ellen Braunstein, Special to Chicago Jewish News
When Heidi Schrage of Buffalo Grove learned she had breast cancer at age 36, she got a call from a Jewish woman her age who went through the same experience.
That call from a New Jersey representative of Sharsharet, a Jewish organization that helps women and their families face breast and ovarian cancer, was what she needed to get through her ordeal.
“This person was amazing support. Not only did I have my family and friends who were close by and helping with the kids, but the peer support they set me up with knew exactly what I was going through. I could ask her anything. We talked about cancer, about not cancer. It was great.”
Schrage, now 40, became a member of the advisory board when Sharsharet (Hebrew for chain) recently opened a regional office in Chicago. The launch event was earlier this month at a private home and more than 100 men and women attended.
“We offer specific support for women going through breast and ovarian cancer,” said Eve Kleinerman, regional director of the Chicago office for Sharsheret. Ninety-three thousand women and families have been served nationwide since Sharsheret started in 2001. “Through our peer support, women can speak to another individual who went through the same type of cancer, at the same stage in life or religious background. They really get a sense of what life is throwing at them in that moment.”
Nationally, Sharsharet has a team of seven social workers with one based in Illinois. “They speak to women consistently about their experience and offer support,” Kleinerman said.
Sharsheret provides make up kits for women undergoing chemotherapy. They may lose their eyebrows and must stencil them in, for example.
The organization also ships “busy boxes,” age-tailored children’s toys “so kids are otherwise engaged while mom and dad are dealing with the treatment and everything that goes along with that,” Kleinerman said. Schrage said she filled out a form on her children’s interests and received a box a week later on her doorstep with play dough, crafts, paints, dolls and cars for her three- and five-year olds. “It kept my kids busy after a tiring session of chemo. I just didn’t have the energy to entertain or play with them. These items were there for them. It was unbelievable.”
The organization also offers “outreach and education to make sure people in the Jewish community are aware of their risk of cancer and how to appropriately take steps that could save their life,” Kleinerman said. “As Ashkenazi Jews we are predisposed to breast and ovarian cancer.”
Schrage was tapped to co-chair the advisory board after she raised $1,300 for her 40th birthday on Facebook for Sharsheret. “When I heard it was opening here I was ecstatic. I knew I wanted to be involved in such a life-changing organization.”
The advisory board has 13 members and both co-chairs have benefitted from the service. Kleinerman is personally connected to the organization through her mother, who was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2007. The Skokie resident received a call from Sharsheret back then. Her mother benefitted from the ability to speak to her peer supporter as well as her social worker. “I was aware of the benefits she was receiving and how much it meant to her so when I learned that an office was going to open up in Chicago, this felt like the natural position for me given my family commitment to the organization.”
The call volume in the Chicago area has increased by 400 percent since the office opened five months ago “just by having an on-the-ground presence,” Kleinerman said. For information on Sharsheret services in Chicago call (312) 767-2045) or visit www.sharsheret.org.