Through young-adult buddy system, the children of cancer patients find support

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Sylvie Slotkin was already struggling with her mental health during the Covid-19 pandemic when, before her sophomore year of high school, she learned that her mother, Lisa, had breast cancer.

Slotkin, now a freshman at Northwestern University, recalls thinking, “Things really don’t need to be worse right now than they already are — and then they got worse.”

While her mother was able to speak with women who underwent chemotherapy and mastectomies to learn more about her condition and what to expect, Slotkin did not know any peers whose mothers had breast cancer and might have been able to offer reassurance.

“If I had someone validate how I was feeling, I would have been much better off,” Slotkin said.

YAD: The Young ADult Caring Corner at Sharsheret, dedicated by Joy and Michael Goldsmith and family, helps young adults understand their loved ones’ cancer diagnoses, manages a website about cancer for young adults, and provides peer support through a buddy system that pairs mentors whose loved ones have also had a breast cancer or ovarian cancer diagnosis with other young adults in similar situations.

Creating peer networks is one of many services Sharsheret provides to women with cancer and their families. The organization also connects cancer patients with mental health professionals, financial aid and a range of other services.

Sharsheret is trying to promote the YAD resources through social media and word of mouth so that more young adults can access and utilize the buddy system and digital offering, and by Sharsheret providing information about the program to medical professionals who can refer patients’ families to YAD.

When a young adult reaches out to Sharsheret, a social worker conducts an intake interview to learn about that person’s experience.

“We look to figure out, based on their story, who is the best buddy or mentor for us to connect them to,” said Ellen Kleinhaus, Sharsheret’s director of national programs.

The organization also provides training for mentors, including instructions on what to say and not say, conversation starters, sample role plays, and the importance of maintaining confidentiality.

“We try to give them that comfort level so that when they are speaking to someone who’s reaching out to them for support they know how to respond,” Kleinhaus said.

Maya Charak’s mother, Meredith, learned in the summer of 2023 that she had the BRCA genetic mutation, which carries an increased risk of breast and ovarian cancer. BRCA mutations are much more common among Ashkenazi Jewish women than among the general population. Two weeks later, Meredith Charak was diagnosed with breast cancer.

Sharsheret representatives connected her with other women who had survived breast cancer, provided print and digital resources with tips on how to make her treatment easier, and sent care packages that included a robe to wear after her surgery.

“Sharsheret made her feel there was someone that cared for her at all times,” said her daughter, Maya, now a senior at Washington University in St. Louis.

These days Maya and a friend, Sophie Warsetsky, whose mother is also a breast cancer survivor, are training to become YAD mentors.

“I wanted to be able to help support other students who may be going through something similar, and just let them know that they are not alone — because it can feel really isolating,” Warsetsky said.

The two students also helped organize Sharsheret Pink Day, an annual global awareness and unity movement where thousands of people share information about Sharsheret’s vital programs and services to raise awareness about breast cancer, cancer genetics, and generate life-saving conversations.

The Chabad on Campus Washington University in St. Louis’ program was among more than 200 Pink Day initiatives nationally at colleges, Jewish day schools, organizational partners and businesses in February. That was a significant increase from 2023, when there were 140 such events.

Volunteers baked pink challah and collected items to donate to healthcare providers for women undergoing cancer treatment or surgery.

Slotkin helped organize the Pink Day celebration at Northwestern, and talked about her personal experience at a mandala therapeutic art workshop webinar that drew over 300 registrants. These days her mother is healthy and Slotkin is no longer depressed, but she is nervous about her own chances of being diagnosed with cancer one day. Both her grandfathers, a grandmother and her great-aunt also had cancer.

“We all know someone that’s impacted by cancer, and we have a hard enough time as adults going through that,” said Lisa Slotkin, Sylvie’s mother. “I can’t even fathom what it’s like for teenagers, for young adults.” Especially during the pandemic, she noted, “Sylvie was totally isolated and having to deal with this.”

Had Sharsheret’s buddy system existed then, Lisa said, “it would have been amazing for her.”

The impetus for the creation of YAD came from Amanda Goldsmith, the daughter of Joy and Michael Goldsmith. When Joy was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2017, she used Sharsheret’s peer-to-peer network to connect with a cancer survivor. But Amanda, then a college student at New York University, had no such opportunity. Once her mother was cancer free, Amanda launched an initiative to recruit college students in New York City to become involved with Sharsheret. She established a local student board for the organization and students began reaching out to her for advice.

Amanda recalled meeting one young woman at a loss for what to do after her mother’s diagnosis.

“I am so sorry for what you’re going through,” she told her. “I would love to support you in any way.”

Thus was born the idea for the YAD buddy system.

“There is always comfort to anyone at any age in knowing that someone has experienced and persevered through the hurdles that they are now facing,” said Joy Goldsmith. Explaining her family’s decision to underwrite YAD’s development, she added, “We have been often taught to pay it forward. This led us to partnering with Sharsheret and developing YAD.”

Slotkin says she is glad that with YAD she has a way to channel something positive out of the painful and challenging experience of her mother’s cancer diagnosis.

“If I can make something beautiful out of something that’s not beautiful, I want to do that,” Slotkin said.

To learn more about Sharsheret, YAD: Young ADult Caring Corner or Sharsheret Pink Day, click here or contact [email protected].

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