Posted on October 4, 2012, 3:32 PM
by Shari R. Woldenberg
At 38, I was given a 20% chance of surviving my large B-cell non-Hodgkin lymphoma. Yet I told myself and others I was “lucky.” I was lucky to have a wonderful family, two healthy children, and the kind of friends who made spreadsheets to coordinate bringing homemade meals. Lucky to find a doctor who had the right balance of textbook knowledge, experience and common sense, and to have access to cutting edge medical technology that did not exist five years earlier. Lucky to have good health insurance and a sister who was a perfect match for a transplant. Lucky, ultimately, to be in the 20% that survived.
“Lucky” was an easy story to tell, the brave and inspiring story that everyone loved to hear. But as most survivors know, life is not that simple. Scars are external and internal, and my real challenge was re-entering life with a damaged body. How would I keep up with my rapidly growing children and the fast-paced life swirling around us? I tried returning to work in my former profession, but couldn’t quite keep up and only lasted three weeks. How would we pay our mounting bills in a difficult economy? I had to readjust to new strengths and weakness along with survivor’s guilt. Why did I survive against all odds? Why didn’t the 4-year-old with leukemia or the father of three young girls who called me for transplant advice? Was I worthy?
I was tired of being “lucky.” So I began my search to find purpose, to find a way to give back. I began by examining what gave me strength when I was recovering. I’d spent hours spent with my family, looking at photographs and recounting our adventures. My boys particularly enjoyed hearing about a Himalayan trek my husband and I took before they were born. I recalled endless mountains, deep sapphire blue glacial lakes, trekking in air so thin I could barely place one foot in front of the other, but never doubting whether I could climb 16,000-foot peaks.
I also thought about my wonderfully supportive and generous community, and what would make a meaningful gift for a hospital patient. Flowers are usually prohibited in oncology units, and diets are often restricted. My goal became finding a way to support patients and health-related nonprofits. I began visualizing a simple cotton cord necklace, with different colored cords corresponding to common health awareness colors. Only one question remained: what symbol to place on those cords.
The answer, as it often is, was right before my eyes. One day, as I walked around my house, I noticed a beautiful silver charm dangling from some antique Tibetan prayer beads my husband and I had purchased in the Himalayas. The beads were made from hand-carved mountain turquoise and coral, and had 20 small silver beads and two delicate, silver charms hanging from frayed tassels along the sides. They’d been in my life for years, yet I’d never known their true meaning. I began to research, learning that one of the charms was called a dorje, and that it was a Tibetan symbol for “indestructible.” I held it closely and knew it was what I’d been looking for. That it was the exact message and spirit I wanted to share with those in the fight.
I started Strings of Strength in my living room with two purposes: to give strength to patients who needed it through beautiful jewelry, and to support non-profit organizations dedicated to the health and well-being of people everywhere. One of my founding principles was transparent accounting and not simple “awareness color marketing.” $5.00 from each sale would be donated directly to a specific charity, and the donation would be clearly stated on jewelry cards. I had no experience starting my own business and had been out of the workforce for years, so I had to quickly learn many professions: jewelry making and metal casting, accounting, shipping, marketing, graphic design, e-commerce and much more.
Wandering through bead shops and the Los Angeles jewelry district, I sought out materials, dreaming of building my tiny company. Every night, I would go home and knot necklaces. Every day, I would test out new creations. Walking through the city streets with purpose was therapeutic as I pieced my life back together. When I finally felt I perfected the length, design and sliding knots needed to make the necklaces adjustable, I worked up the courage to approach my first charity, Stand Up To Cancer.
I purchased a black velvet display case, dug up my old, tan leather briefcase, nervously walked into a meeting and spoke from my heart. My dream came true! SU2C supported my idea and gave me the confidence to begin approaching other non-profits. I am proud to announce that Strings of Strength necklaces are currently available on the SU2C website, on my website, and at limited retail outlets.
While I will always feel “lucky,” I have spent the last 10 years working through my weakness and ultimately embracing an unexpected new strength and purpose. Although the path is not always easy, my spirit, like the dorje that inspired me, is indestructible.
Shari R. Woldenberg lives in Los Angeles with her husband, her 2 sons, and her dog Burnie. Shari is a graduate of Brandeis University and Boston University Law School. She founded Strings of Strength LLC in the spring of 2012 to support patients and health-related charities.
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