Community support vital in cancer battle

PHOTO: Gregory, Nina, Maya, Leo and Talia Schwartz at Maya’s bat mitzvah in March 2018. Maya’s Torah portion Ki Tissa discusses belief, patience and celebrating the covenant with G-d – all ideas her mom found especially relevant during cancer treatment.


Planning a bat mitzvah while in the midst of breast cancer treatment might sound like too much stress.

Talia Schwartz had one of her seven surgeries just four weeks before her daughter Maya’s bat mitzvah last March. Counterintuitive as it may seem, she says it was a blessing.

“It eased my stress,” says Talia, who was 42 when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. “I was forced to reflect on things I might not have if not for my family’s daily discussions on faith and belief. … It helped a lot speaking with the rabbi with her … (about) the significance of faith and hope and belief when things don’t seem to be going our way.”

Talia will be sharing her experience about discovering both her cancer and the importance of community support during a day of free programs about cancer and the Jewish community (see below).

Ashkenazi Jews have a one in 40 chance of having a harmful BRCA1/2 (BReast CAncer) genetic mutation. Only one in 400 people in the general U.S. population have such a mutation. Women carrying a BRCA mutation have up to an 85% chance of developing breast or ovarian cancer in their lifetimes, and men carrying such mutations also have increased cancer risk.

Talia doesn’t have a BRCA mutation, and she doesn’t have a family history of breast cancer. But she has done monthly breast exams most of her life.

“I thought why not?” says Talia. “I have it at my fingertips. If I could find it myself, why not do it?”

So when Talia found a bump that felt like a wad of chewing gum in her right breast, she had a mammogram. The mammogram didn’t show anything suspicious, but when Talia showed the area to her gynecologist, she too was able to feel it.

“We are our own best advocates,” says Talia.

The bump didn’t have the classic warning signs of irregular or hard edges, but the doctor recommended an ultrasound anyway.

Over the next year, Talia had seven surgeries, including a double mastectomy, removal of 19 lymph nodes and radiation treatment.

“When I was first diagnosed, I couldn’t understand when will this be behind me,” says Talia. “Personally, I wanted to know there was a light at the end of the tunnel. So I focused on talking to people who were past it. I focused on the end and knew I would do whatever I needed to do during the midpoint to get to the endpoint.”

The support of family, friends and her Jewish community were vital.

“Lean on people around you and your community,” she says. “People are good and want to help. It’s OK to lean on them.”

Celebrating a bat mitzvah in the midst of all the upheaval turned into a silver lining. The family lives in Corvallis, but has a place in Portland where they stay on weekends so the children can attend Sunday school at Congregation Neveh Shalom.

“People surrounded us,” says Talia. “I never understood how wonderful this community is and how wonderful and supportive people can be.”


Sharsheret California Regional Director Jenna Fields will lead two free programs in Portland. She has led educational programming throughout California, raising awareness within the Jewish community about breast and ovarian cancer.

Creating a Caring Community: More than Chicken Soup

WHEN: 11:30 am to 1:30 pm, March 4
WHERE: Congregation Neveh Shalom, 2900 SW Peaceful Lane, Portland

Kosher lunch provided.

PRESENTER: Jenna Fields, MAJCS, MSW, California regional director of Sharsheret, the national nonprofit supporting Jewish women and families facing breast and ovarian cancer.

Learn how to support loved ones facing difficult diagnoses. Attend if you are a current caregiver, friend or family member of someone impacted by illness; a member of a hesed committee; or a Jewish communal professional or clergy.


What’s Jewish about Breast and Ovarian Cancer?

Panel Discussion and Exhibitor Fair

WHEN: 6 pm, March 4.

Food available for pre-order with registration.

WHERE: Mittleman Jewish Community Center, 6651 SW Capitol Hwy., Portland

PANELISTS: Dr. Dana Kostiner Simpson, Dr. Lucy Langer and cancer survivor Talia Schwartz; moderated by Jenna Fields of Sharsheret.

One in 40 Ashkenazi Jews – both men and women – are carriers for the BRCA mutations. Come hear from a panel of experts, who will discuss the latest in genetic testing, cancer prevention and how it impacts you and your family.


Both programs presented by the Jewish Federation of Greater Portland’s Women’s Philanthropy Committee, Sharsheret, MJCC, Neveh Shalom, Compass Oncology and Malka Diamonds & Jewelry. Co-chaired by Leslie Beard and Michelle Caplan.

Registration and information:

As a followup resource locally, contact Portland Community Chaplain Rabbi Barry Cohen at or 503-892-7401.




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