Fresh from an early morning TV appearance, Jennifer Merschdorf ’96 grabs a seat in the lobby of her Seattle hotel and pulls out a phone to check in with the office in New York. Next on her schedule is our interview, then lunch with her mother, and then time to meet up with a few old college friends. This day is a balance. Some work, some family, and some fun. It’s all at the threshold of an intense few days of the national conference for Young Survival Coalition, a not-for-profit organization for young women facing breast cancer.

Jennifer Merschdorf
Courtesy Jennifer Merschdorf

As CEO of the coalition, a cancer survivor, a doting daughter, and an avid home restorer, Merschdorf is most happy doing several things at once, a skill she learned as a business student at Washington State University. Then it was primarily about harmonizing school work and a social life. After school she moved to Washington, D.C., for a demanding job coordinating career conferences for high school students.

Then she moved home to Oakland to be closer to family and start a career in advertising. It was just in time for the dot-com collapse, she says. Her firm closed and, at 26, she had to rethink her goals. Merschdorf found temporary work with the Sierra Club, and “it was a game changer for me.”

She liked the people, enjoyed learning about donor giving, politics, and the environment, and figuring out how a giant nonprofit worked. She enrolled at the University of San Francisco for an MBA and to pursue “this passion for nonprofit management.” Her position was made permanent and she was promoted to senior director of operations and finance. It was through the Sierra Club that she met her husband Jeffrey, who worked out of the New York office.

With Jeffrey’s encouragement, Merschdorf decided to move east. “It has always been a dream of mine,” she says. “I think I have an East Coast soul.” She quickly found a job with New Yorkers for Parks, a 100-year-old park advocacy organization. It was a crash course in New York living, she says. “It was all about politics and it helped me learn the city.” After three years, she moved to a nonprofit focused on developing cross-cultural relations with young people through technology. It gave her experience in using social networking and computer technology to serve a nonprofit’s goals.

Then came 2010. “That’s my year,” says Merschdorf quite seriously. In January, her mother Linda Merschdorf ’65 was diagnosed with breast cancer. In April, her employer lost its biggest funder. In May, while downsizing the organization, Merschdorf laid herself off. It gave her time to travel to California and help her mother who was going through treatment. Then, two months later, she learned that she herself had cancer.

She was on the phone with her mom when she felt a lump. “I thought, you’ve got to be kidding me.” She waited for it to go away. It didn’t. She showed it to her husband. Then she went to her doctors asking for a sonogram and a biopsy. Because of her age, they were less inclined to look. But because of her insistence and her mother’s diagnosis, they looked anyway. There was cancer, in several places. “It was way over here,” she says, touching beneath her arm toward her back.

That first weekend after her diagnosis she and her husband wrote an email asking their friends to reach out to find anyone else who had dealt with breast cancer at an early age. “I just couldn’t believe I was the only one,” says Merschdorf. “That first weekend was the hardest.”

But then the emails started coming back. There were other women in her community dealing with the same or similar issues. They also pointed her to the Young Survival Coalition, an organization for young women with breast cancer founded in 1998 by women who were diagnosed in their early 30s. “For the first time a nonprofit was helping me,” she says.

Meeting with her oncologist, she learned that her type of cancer couldn’t be treated with chemotherapy. The main way to address it was to “take all the estrogen out of my body.

“How does it feel to go into menopause overnight? Not fun,” she says. A monthly shot in the stomach suppressed her estrogen production and “shut down my ovaries completely. My husband likes to call me a science experiment.” Some days, “I feel like I’m 90.” She gained weight, lost hair, and endured a lengthy treatment.

Not long after starting treatment, Merschdorf learned that Young Survival was looking for a new CEO. The organization had been without a head for six months and needed to modernize and enhance its focus on younger breast cancer patients and survivors. The organization had aged, along with the women who had created it and made it great, says Merschdorf.

With her background working for nonprofits and the tech-based youth organization, Merschdorf had the experience to take on the job. “So I applied.” Her breast cancer came up during the interview process, but “they made it very, very clear they were not giving me the job because I’m a young survivor,” she says. While starting a new, very personal experience with cancer, she also embarked on a very public one.

In her first days with the YSC, she traveled around the country to meet as many young survivors as she could and figure out how to better serve their needs. “It was very eye opening. We needed to be more tech savvy, a place for young women that they want to be a part of.” Less pink, more empowerment, she says. “When the doctor says you’re too young for breast cancer, you can say, let’s check this out.”

Breast cancer is so much seen as an older woman’s issue. But young women with this diagnosis have their own set of issues, she says. “Fertility, dating, no breasts, no hair, no career,” she says. “And there’s the loss of the illusion of immortality that young women have.”

So now she leads the organization, advocating for research, fundraising, pushing for education, and developing awareness and support for cancer patients and survivors. “I am lucky,” she says. “When I am in a meeting and I burst out in a hot flash [because of her treatment], everybody knows it’s OK.”

She finds her balance by making time on weekends for a rural life in the Hudson River Valley. “My husband and I have a crazy infatuation with restoring old structures,” she says. In 2006 they bought a 150-year-old home and started stripping wallpaper and pulling out old chimneys and fixtures.

“It was more than we should have taken on,” she says, only partly meaning it. With help from her family, including her parents, they have managed to restore and update much of the property. The project is on-going, but a great diversion to her busy city life.