Swimming for Sara

Jeff Schottenstein is committed to honoring his wife Sara’s memory and supporting cancer research in a meaningful and ongoing way.

Sara Schottenstein and her children.

There's no time that Jeff Schottenstein feels closer to his late wife, Sara, than when he leaps into the icy waters of San Francisco Bay to complete the 1.4-mile swim from Alcatraz to San Francisco. “It’s a time when I feel so deeply connected to Sara and her memory,” Jeff says of the swim that he does each fall in her honor. “When I’m in that water, it’s isolating, it’s quiet, and there are no distractions—it’s a chance to connect and commune with her in a way that is just very meaningful to me.”

Jeff lost Sara to gastric cancer in the summer of 2016. A vibrant, healthy wife and mother, Sara had virtually no symptoms of the malignancy growing within her—and when the cancer was discovered, it was already advanced, with few treatment options. “No one’s prepared for that type of news. There’s no earthquake kit,” Jeff says of Sara’s diagnosis in October 2014. “Your whole world changes on a dime.”

Finding Meaning in Heartbreak

Knowing that chemotherapy was not a long-term solution for Sara’s condition and frustrated by the fact that gastric cancer research is woefully underfunded, the Schottensteins poured themselves into finding a possible long-term solution for Sara’s—and other gastric patients’—disease. “It seemed to us, through the research we were doing, that the most hopeful things that exist in the world of cancer treatment couldn’t be accessed by gastric cancer patients,” Jeff says. “That was incredibly frustrating and something we wanted to try to change.”

Jeff Schottenstein with two of his children.

Jeff and Sara decided to focus much of their effort on helping to launch a clinical trial at Stanford. And although Sara did not live to see the opening of the trial, the couple’s enduring wish was that a combination of immunotherapy agents that were being used in other cancers would prove helpful to other gastric cancer patients. More about the clinical trial and Sara’s journey is conveyed in a 2017 Stanford video.  

While the trial ultimately didn’t bring the results the Schottensteins and the team at Stanford had hoped for, Jeff remains resolute in his belief in the vital importance of research. “Clinical trials are critical,” he says. “They’re where progress happens.”

Honoring Sara

In addition to working full time and raising his three children (all of whom he describes as “really resilient and doing very well”), Jeff spends a significant amount of his time and energy promoting the importance of cancer research, particularly in the area of gastric cancer. He is the founder and president of the Sara Schottenstein Foundation, which aims to find a cure for gastric cancer, and a member of the Stanford Cancer Council, an advisory group that helps support the Stanford Cancer Institute. In addition, Jeff serves on the Board of Directors of the Gastric Cancer Foundation and is involved with Stand Up To Cancer, where he helped fund and develop a gastric cancer research team that is dedicated to early detection. “The best opportunity people have to put this disease behind them is if they find it early,” he says.

The Schottenstein family and friends participate in the annual Swim for Sara fundraising event.

A meaningful part of honoring Sara is participating in the Alcatraz swim, leveraging it as an occasion to honor her and raise support for cancer through his personal “Swim for Sara” campaign. “I’m trying to do whatever small part I can, and to help find a silver lining from all that loss,” Jeff says. “My goal is not just to raise funds for cancer research, which is so critical, but to keep Sara’s memory alive for my kids and me and everyone who loves her so much.”

Jeff and a team of nine others will do the Alcatraz swim on Oct. 1, 2022, to raise funds for the Swim for Sara Cancer Research Fund at Stanford. To support the effort, please visit https://give.stanford.edu/swimforsara. For more information on how to support cancer research at Stanford, please contact Karen Mitchell at karenm26@stanford.edu.