Write what you know, the saying goes. So Norma E. Roth wrote her first book about what she knows all too well: breast cancer.
When the Brooklyn native and longtime Cherry Hill resident was diagnosed in 2004, she became the ninth woman in three generations on the maternal side of her family to develop the disease.
Pink Ribbon Journey tells their stories and more. Roth's decision to write was sparked by shock at learning that an old friend, Rowan University speech professor Carolyn O'Donnell, had died of breast cancer that same year.
"I couldn't believe her voice was silent," says Roth, 48, an engaging woman who lives with her husband, Joel Penn, and their three children in the township's Woodcrest section.
"Writing the book took five years," she adds. "I was wedded to my laptop."
Cancer-free since her surgery in 2005, Roth wanted the book to be educational as well as inspirational.
So she interviewed physicians, nurses, technicians, support-group facilitators, and survivors.
As for sugarcoating? Not a chance.
" ... While I really didn't want to part with my breasts," she writes, "I was definitely not prepared to part from my children."
She's a thorough reporter as well as a capable writer, sketching the personalities of a diverse group of people with vivid and sensitive strokes.
"It was a pleasure sharing my story with Norma," says Cherry Hill resident Valerie Yasner, 54, the coordinator of a community-supported agriculture program in the township.
Cancer-free for nearly a decade, she has long been candid about her diagnosis, treatment, and recovery. She was frank about her darker moments, too, telling Roth "there were times that [I] didn't feel courageous or hopeful."
Yasner adds, "If one person who reads the book pays more attention to their body, then it will be worth it."
Subtitled Stories From the Heart, Roth's book is illustrated with eloquent and elegant images by the Cherry Hill portrait photographer Lesha Moore.
"I don't have breast cancer in my family, and I approached the project with a very open mind," Moore says. "It was an inspirational journey for me, learning about breast cancer and the struggles people go through."
After she finished writing in 2009, Roth tried to interest a commercial publisher.
"It was very depressing," she recalls. "I was getting all these rejection letters . . . and then I realized I could publish it myself."
Roth's sister, Sharon Roth-Lichtenfeld, did the design and layout, and the author and her husband put more than $30,000 into the project.
The book was published last fall, and Roth has since sold 700 copies, through her website (pinkribbonjourney.com) and in person.
"People need to see me in their face, telling them they need to know that an annual mammogram can save their life!"
While the prevalence of breast cancer in a single family is somewhat unusual, there are universal elements to Roth's story.
"I think people can learn from my journey," she says.
And the sheer uplift of the stories transcends the specific disease.
Moore, the photographer, has recently begun dealing with Alzheimer's in her family.
"I don't want to get sappy," she says. "But I think working on Norma's book in a way prepared me and enabled me to be strong in the journey I'm on now."