When Cancer Meets Inner Drive
Diagnosed at 28, Rochelle Shoretz has stayed true to her big dreams—and to her goal of helping other young women with breast cancer.
Written by Yvonne Lee & photos by Doug Sanford
Celebrate the day: Rochelle Shoretz embraces her life as the executive director of Sharsheret, an organization for young Jewish women with breast cancer, and as the mom of David and Stephen Mirsky. The mantra on her pill container? Celebrate the Day.
Throughout her life, Rochelle Shoretz has always aimed high and dreamed big. She graduated from Barnard College, the prestigious women’s liberal arts college in New York City, in 1995, and just a year later earned her law degree from Columbia Law School. By 1998, at age 25, she was serving in Washington, D.C., as a law clerk for a U.S. Supreme Court justice. Her accomplishments dazzle.
A dream fulfilled: Rochelle Shoretz fulfills a childhood dream by attending the 83rd Academy Awards in Los Angeles on Feb. 27, 2011. | Photo courtesy of Rochelle Shoretz
Yet as she grew older, she realized that there was a childhood dream she still couldn’t let go of—attending the Academy Awards. Last February she achieved that, too, managing to finalize her plans for the entertainment community’s preeminent affair while hospitalized with dehydration.
That’s what life is like sometimes when you are living with metastatic breast cancer.
As a little girl, Shoretz, now 39, had often dreamed of walking the red carpet as an Oscar-nominated actress. Over the years, though, that fantasy morphed into one slightly less flashy: attending the Academy Awards as a filler—a volunteer who occupies seats celebrities leave empty when they go onstage to present or receive an award. She knew no one in Hollywood. And she had no idea how she was going to make it happen. But then, in what she calls one of the “crazy confluences of events” in her life that seem almost spiritually destined, she found herself seated on a plane next to a man who worked for Warner Brothers Studios and told him her childhood hope. A few weeks later, he called: One of the coveted filler spots was hers.
“That’s a lot of my life—cuckoo things that have happened,” Shoretz says, sitting in the Teaneck, N.J., office of Sharsheret, the breast cancer organization she co-founded in 2001.
It didn’t come as a surprise to anyone who knows Shoretz well that she persuaded her doctors to pump her full of IV fluids and let her out of the hospital early so that she could hop on a plane and live out her Hollywood dream. Another goal obtained.
Living With Breast Cancer
Shoretz was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2001, at the age of 28. She had recently completed her clerkship with U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and was on a path to legal prominence. She had been married for nine years and was the mother of two young sons, ages 3 and 5. She was healthy, fit, active. Stage II breast cancer didn’t fit into the picture.
“That day, I think, was just one full of shock,” Shoretz recalls. “You know even as an educated young woman, I really didn’t know anything about cancer. I certainly didn’t know anything about breast cancer. And I had never heard of breast cancer in a woman that young.”
That’s not too surprising. Although the American Cancer Society estimates that 230,000 women in the U.S. will be diagnosed with invasive breast cancer in 2011, breast cancer in women under age 30 is rare. If you’re 20, your risk of having breast cancer is 1 in 1,760. At 30, it’s 1 in 229; and at 40 it’s 1 in 69. A woman’s lifetime risk is 1 in 8.
Hours after her diagnosis, Shoretz began to organize, calling family and friends to her home in Teaneck. “The day we got the news, she started handing out assignments about who would help her,” says her stepmother, Carol Ann Finkelstein. “She had a whole plan. ... She was just organizing the show. It was remarkable.”
Even though she had her family by her side, Shoretz felt the need to connect with other young Jewish women who, like her, were experiencing breast cancer through the lens of Judaism. When she couldn’t find them, she set a new goal. “Here she was,” says Finkelstein, “with a scarf on her little bald head in the midst of chemotherapy and she said, ‘I have to start an organization because I know there are other young women out there like me. But how to find them?’ ”