By Devorah Silverman
The COVID-19 pandemic was devastating. Hundreds of thousands of lives were lost, and millions experienced isolation and social recessions from which it will take years to recover. If there is a silver lining for the women of Sharsheret, it is that we are emerging with an even sharper mission, understanding how we can more effectively support the women who need us, and more broadly share lifesaving information.
Sharsheret is a national nonprofit organization that, through personalized support and educational outreach. improves the lives of Jewish women and families living with or at increased genetic risk for breast or ovarian cancer. Sharsheret was founded by women, has always been run by women, empowers women, and educates women. We are truly a sharsheret—a chain of women supporting and nurturing one another.
Pre-pandemic, women contacted Sharsheret to access a range of clinical services from social workers and genetic counselors, including peer supporters—opportunities to learn about prospective doctors and health care centers, cancer genetics and genetic screening, and financial subsidies for nonmedical services. Women received resources about dating and parenting during cancer, survivorship, and financial wellness. Our callers checked in regularly as their needs evolved, and appreciated the opportunity to access Sharsheret on their own terms—by phone, email, or through our livechat. We provided telehealth services, meaningfully connecting with the women who needed us. A cancer diagnosis is life-changing for anyone, but Jewish women affected by breast or ovarian cancer face unique and complex challenges.
Pre-pandemic, Sharsheret facilitated hundreds of educational events nationwide on high school and college campuses, in synagogues and JCCs, and in Jewish and medical communities, reaching more than 50,000 persons annually, sharing life-saving information about cancer genetics and preventive measures that can be taken to protect one’s health. We provided opportunities for women personally affected by breast or ovarian cancer or at increased genetic risk for those diseases to share their stories, educating and inspiring thousands each year.
And then came the coronavirus.
The early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, largely characterized by fear, angst, and confusion, saw the cancellation of the overwhelming majority of preventive cancer screenings such as mammograms, breast ultrasounds, and MRIs. In “normal” times, women often neglect their own health care while they care for their parents, children, family members, and friends. As a result of the estimated 10 million cancer screenings missed during the pandemic, breast cancer diagnoses are predicted to increase dramatically in the coming years, and cancers are likely to be found at later stages than they otherwise would have been.
As Sharsheret ramped up our clinical support services to meet the dramatically increased demand for more frequent, longer, and deeper telehealth sessions with the women we support, we also had to shift all our educational programming to virtual platforms. In so doing, we learned three critical lessons.
Lesson One: Virtual Programs Can Cultivate Community
Pre-pandemic, our practice was to run three webinars annually, focused on topics such as genetics, medical updates, survivorship, and relationships—all contextualized to the unique experiences of Jewish women. Between March 24, 2020, and May 26, 2021, we facilitated 81 webinars (all of which were recorded and are available at https://sharsheret.org/resource/teleconferences-webinars). Volume alone did not build community; rather, we developed strategies to maximize the impact of Zoom educational events.
We immediately realized that our webinar participants could use the chat function to support one another, almost as substitutes for the hugs they could no longer access or provide. By initiating the chat with a simple “Hi from NJ,” or “How are you feeling today?” those online began to share with one another, often intimately. We provided instructions to enable people to participate anonymously, and although some chose to do so, many kept their video cameras on and privately exchanged contact information to continue their conversations. We had not expected that to happen!
What we learned was that we needed to provide alternative means for women to access the personalized ḥizuk (strength) that they craved. In addition to matching women through our customized Peer Support Network, women began to make their own matches. They used the Zoom chat to share well beyond the focus of any specific webinar. For example, on a webinar focused on nutrition, one woman chatted to all: “Feeling nervous about my upcoming surgery.” Her comment resulted in many messages of support. Women, especially those living alone or feeling isolated, found validation, comfort, and encouragement.
Sharsheret also understood that our community desperately wanted access to the most up-to-date information about COVID-19 as it related to women experiencing cancer. For example, those in treatment sought guidance about extra precautions they could take and, with the advent of the vaccines, about what the medical community was learning about their efficacy for cancer patients. Updates provided by television newscasts raised questions, and with fewer people going to their doctors, Sharsheret brought experts to our people. Despite the common refrain of “you’ll need to consult your own doctor,” women learned so much from the stories that the physicians were able to share the live-time updates they provided. Of the 81 webinars facilitated, 15 were medical updates provided by experts in oncology, radiology, immunology, and infectious diseases. Webinar participants had the opportunity to submit questions in advance or via the chat function and unanswered questions were responded to by email.
What we learned was that these two strategies helped us virtually nurture our special community. As one woman shared, “Your webinars make me feel less isolated dealing with my cancer all the way in Arizona, away from my family in New Jersey.”
Lesson Two: A Field Requires Multiple Entry Points
Eighty-one webinars in 14 months is a lot of webinars. Our first offering was a medical update that drew 842 registrants, of whom 353 were new to Sharsheret. It was clear that there was great interest in participating, but with no sense of how long the pandemic would last, we were not sure how many webinars to schedule, or which topics to highlight. We decided to broaden our content offerings and we found that high-quality and relevant content drew crowds, including thousands new to Sharsheret and our other resources and services. We used webinars as engagement platforms.
Our webinars focused on issues related to cancer experiences, including nutrition, mindfulness, parenting with cancer during a pandemic, navigating challenging conversations, exercise, and resiliency. Women channeled their inner artists through guided Paint with Me and Zentangle doodle sessions. Classes with makeup artists specializing in women with cancer provided women with opportunities to pamper themselves safely. We initiated a book club and facilitated webinars with authors who discussed their own cancer stories. We launched Sharsheret in the Kitchen, teaching participants about traditional and innovative kosher dishes, many holiday-centric, with chefs around the world.
Importantly, we developed uniquely Jewish experiences including pre-Shabbat and pre-Yom Tov webinars. We initiated Shalom Shabbat, a series offering opportunities for Jewish women to reset mindfully as they enter the sacred time and space of Shabbat or Yom Tov. Women of all backgrounds—those familiar with traditional rituals as well as those for whom the rituals were newer—shared how important these spiritual gatherings were for them, especially as many navigated marking weekly and annual Jewish landmarks on their own for the first time. And we amplified our online Jewish resources to include guidelines for launching or joining Tehillim (Psalms) reading groups and offered access to guided meditations.
Even as our clinicians continued to provide expert telehealth to our callers, we launched online Facebook groups for specific cohorts (for instance, women living with advanced cancers and metastatic disease, caregivers, and those newly diagnosed) for people to share and normalize their experiences.
What we learned was that to be field leaders in providing quality virtual programming meant that we needed to offer a variety of entry points. We did not imagine that all our webinars would have equal appeal; as expected, some drew far larger audiences than others. Some women came to any and every offering, and for these women, we were a lifeline. Others chose to join only sessions that were of particular interest. One woman commented, “This webinar is exactly what I didn’t know I really needed!”
Overall, our webinars drew almost 5,000 individual participants. Because we diversified our offerings, more individuals know that there is a Jewish breast and ovarian cancer community. Had we limited our content foci, no doubt we would never have reached that many people.
Lesson Three: News Isn’t News Unless Someone Reports It
Like so many Jewish organizations, Sharsheret experiences challenges marketing and promoting our offerings. Of course, we use multiple platforms (emails, social media, press releases, word of mouth). But how many emails is too many, and how do we ensure that people don’t unsubscribe from our lists? Striking a balance is so challenging.
We tried some new strategies during the pandemic, including connecting with influencers. We networked with professional bloggers and social media savants with large followings and asked them to share some of our posts. We featured Jewish women whose names we knew would be recognized, such as Hadassah Lieberman and Ali Rogin, and medical professionals whose bios included working for the World Health Organization and the CDC. We were featured on podcasts with wide followings, and we cooked with chefs with deep reaches.
One of our most impactful strategies was to partner with like-minded organizations. For example, when we ran a webinar targeting mothers and children baking together, we partnered with PJ Library. Partnering with JOFA on our inaugural book club webinar helped us reach women new to Sharsheret. And when we discussed cancer genetics, we partnered with Basser Center for BRCA, JScreen, and the Sarnoff Center for Jewish Genetics.
What we learned was that we have a lot more to learn. There is no secret sauce to guide how frequently we should post, but what was very clear was that partnering with the “right” organizations and influencers is a win–win. Sharsheret’s focus overlaps with other organizations that serve Jewish women, and it is mutually beneficial to promote our collective opportunities.
Where Do We Go from Here?
Post-pandemic, Sharsheret’s plan is to continue to offer a wide menu of virtual programming, even as we excitedly resume planning for in-person educational events.
Sharsheret hopes for the day when our services will no longer be needed because cures for breast and ovarian cancer will have been found and made fully accessible. Until then, we will keep working to identify and implement strategies to better reach the women who need our support and to more effectively educate people with life-saving information.
Devorah Silverman is the chief operating officer of Sharsheret, based in Teaneck, New Jersey. She supervises Sharsheret’s educational outreach programming and the implementation of Sharsheret’s strategic plan, expanding Sharsheret’s reach to all Jewish women and families facing breast and ovarian cancer nationwide.
Sharsheret provides opportunities for women personally affected by breast or ovarian cancer or at increased genetic risk for those diseases to share their stories, educating and inspiring thousands each year.
“This webinar is exactly what I didn’t know I really needed!”
Sharsheret hopes for the day when our services will no longer be needed because cures for breast and ovarian cancer will have been found and made fully accessible.
Partnering with the “right” organizations and influencers is a win–win.