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Tiburon man’s annual Swim for Sara raises money in memory of his late wife


At 9:30 a.m. Nov. 7, Tiburon’s Jeff Schottenstein jumped into the bay from a boat near Alcatraz Island. He describes conditions that day as kind, but that’s relative because the San Francisco Bay can be very mean. Skies were blue and currents calm as Schottenstein, 51, swam in 58-degree water toward San Francisco. When Schottenstein stepped on shore 1.4 miles and an hour later, his kids were waiting with warm towels, big hugs and bittersweet congratulations. He’d just completed his second Swim For Sara, a fundraising tribute to his wife and their mother, who died of cancer four years ago.

“The swim is challenging and beautiful and as a result, a fitting way to honor Sara,” says Schottenstein, ———

——— whose swim raised $141,000 in donations for Stand Up to Cancer, which aims to fund and develop new and promising cancer treatments to help patients. “I am extremely grateful and moved by everyone’s generosity.”

In 2016, Sara Schottenstein was one of more than 11,000 Americans to die of gastric cancer. She was 47. Gastric cancer, commonly referred to as stomach cancer, is the third leading cause of cancer deaths worldwide. While it is more prevalent in other countries than in the U.S., Black and Hispanic populations in the U.S. are at increased risk for the disease, and men more than women.

“Research for gastric-cancer disease is poorly funded relative to other cancers,” Schottenstein says, noting it only receives 10 percent of the funding of lung cancer.

Sara and Jeff Schottenstein met in 1987 as students at the University of Wisconsin at Madison but didn’t begin dating until later, when they were both living in Chicago. By that time, Sara had gone to law school and was working as an Illinois state’s attorney. Jeff, who is now a wealthmanagement professional, was studying for his master’s in business at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management.

After graduating from business school, Jeff took a job in San Francisco, and Sara eventually joined him. The Schottensteins married in 2000 and moved to Tiburon in 2004. It was then that Sara put her career on hold to be home full-time with their children: Adam, now 18, Abby, 16, and Danny, 12.

“Sara was extremely special.” Jeff says. “She was kind, warm, generous, intelligent, funny and beautiful.”

Sara was active in the local community, particularly in her kids’ schools, played tennis and loved to travel. She was also the picture of health until her diagnosis, which is typical of gastric-cancer patients. The disease generally progresses to an advanced stage silently, without symptoms. Because only one in five cases is detected at an early stage, the five-year survival rate is just 32 percent.

After Sara’s 2014 diagnosis, the Schottensteins fought the disease passionately, working closely with doctors at Stanford University to explore solutions


beyond traditional treatment methods.

“Sara and I were initially supporting research that we felt could potentially lead to new treatment options for her and other gastric-cancer patients,” Schottenstein says. “Inspired by Sara’s beautiful life, I am continuing on this path in her memory.”

Schottenstein gave a grant in 2017 to a team of Stanford University researchers that led to a dual-drug clinical trial involving the use of two immunotherapy agents for the treatment of metastatic gastric and esophageal cancers — a treatment he and Sara had envisioned. He says he funded the trial, even though Sara would not benefit from it, so that others might.

And earlier this year, the Sara & Jeff Schottenstein Family Charitable Fund undsearch provided essential funding for pioneering research now being conducted by the first international gastric-cancer research team. The Stand Up to Cancer Gastric Interception Research Team, led by a professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine, is focused on improving early detection of gastric cancer by identifying biomarkers including bits of DNA and cells shed by tumors that circulate in the bloodstream. The team is also exploring the use of pill-sized cameras that can be swallowed by patients to provide detailed images of the stomach lining, identifying abnormalities that may be cancerous.

“I strongly believe that no treatment is as effective as early detection. That is why I partnered with Stand Up to Cancer to help launch their first gastric-cancer research team focused on early interception,” Schottenstein says. “I am extremely encouraged by blood tests in development that have the promise to detect cancers at an early stage.”

In addition to his fundraising work with Stand Up to Cancer, Schottenstein is an active board member of the Gastric Cancer Foundation, the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute Presidential Visiting Committee for Gastrointestinal Oncology and the Stanford Cancer Council. Schottenstein was also a 2018 recipient of the Ellis Island Medal of Honor, an award that honors selfless generosity and compassion.

“Jeff is an incredible advocate for gastric cancer and for the patients and their families who are affected by this disease; his passion to drive big ideas and to inspire others to give in this area is very motivating,” says Sung Poblete, CEO of Stand Up To Cancer. “Since gastric cancer is the world’s third leading cause of cancer death, Jeff’s efforts to change the course of this disease could potentially save many thousands of lives.” The pandemic has not tempered Schottenstein’s mission. In addition to funding groundbreaking work on early detection of gastric cancer, he recently formed the Sara Schottenstein Foundation. Its grants, he says, will be “totally focused on cancer, specifically gastric cancer.” The foundation website launches in sands liv tem m t h foc ically foundati January. In 2021, Schottenstein plans continued philanthropy and efforts to raise awareness of gastric cancer, as well as his third Swim for Sara — though he might have some company when he dives into the bay next year. His son Danny is considering making the swim, too.

“My kids and I are passionate about making a difference in Sara’s memory,” Schottenstein says. “The meaning we derive from helping others has been an important part of our healing.” Contributor Heather Lobdell of Tiburon has worked as an editor and writer for several home and garden magazines.

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