It would have been impossible (and possibly disconcerting) for anyone to have left the recent Brushes with Cancer event uninspired. In its second year, the event is the culmination of the intersection of the art and cancer communities. It is a celebration of survivorship and hope, pairing artists and survivors of cancer –along with caregivers—to create original works of art in a variety of mediums inspired by each survivor’s unique “twist” on cancer. Those mediums include visual arts, music and storytelling and featured talented and passionate artists highly skilled in their craft.
Brushes with Cancer is organized by a non-profit organization called Twist Out Cancer (TOC). Founded by cancer survivor and civil rights advocate, Jenna Benn Shersher, the organization is a support community for those impacted by cancer. Twist Out Cancer stemmed from a personal place of darkness, resulting from the fate of cancer. Benn Shersher eventually moved into the light and as a result her big idea for a support network became a vehicle for others to find their own light. The group has reached over 45,000 people in less than two years.
“Twist Out Cancer started from a desperate place- a lonely place and has blossomed into a movement that celebrates survivorship, creativity and hope,” stated Benn Shersher. ”
Twist Out Cancer helps individuals touched by cancer to address the unique emotional needs that accompany a cancer diagnosis. It provides a forum where anyone affected by cancer can share thoughts, experiences, stories, and insights. This allows for the exchange of encouragement and wisdom from one community member to another. Those touched by cancer are invited to create pages that distinguish their “twist” on cancer. This “twist” becomes a collection of videos, posts, songs, pictures, or other media gifted by loved ones and friends.
It was Benn Shersher’s drive and motivation that has made Twist Out Cancer so successful getting people involved. Jennifer Katz Margolis of the Brushes with Cancer host committee expressed being immediately struck by Benn Shersher’s compassion for people that she has shown through creating the organization.
“When she started to blog about her experience, I literally found myself in tears at my computer. I knew that she had such a tremendous voice that I wanted to do something to help proliferate that and share it with the world. And when she finally figured out how she was going to address the cancer community, I thought it was something really inventive and different and I wanted to be a part of that.”
The evening began with a VIP reception, followed by a cocktail hour with music from Chicago based DJ John Simmons who kept the Motown and doo wop tunes going all night long. Guests wore name tags that identified their involvement, such as Artist, Survivor, Caregiver, Board Member, or Volunteer. Also, NBC Chicago news anchor and reporter Anthony Ponce returned for his second year as emcee.
There were several speakers for the evening, including Benn Shersher, as well as Amy Schwartz, a kidney cancer survivor told her story during the VIP reception. During the main event, Jonny Imerman, founder of Imerman Angels and a two-time testicular cancer survivor, addressed guests. As did TOC board chair Dan Hadad Aviad and keynote speaker, Suleika Jaouad.
Jaouad, a New York Times columnist, was unable to attend the event due to feeling under the weather from her own fight with cancer. She did, however, tell her story which was recorded and played on the big screen for attendees. At some points humorous, her no holds barred address was honest and poignant of all the emotions that come with the fate of being young person living with cancer; but most importantly accepting the cards life has dealt and enduring.
The event was held at Chez, an event space in downtown Chicago with a lofty feel. The room was set up with each of the visual artists’ piece of work. There were canvas paintings, photography, and glass displayed from artists based all across the country. On the other end of the creative spectrum was music and spoken word performances.
A highlight of the evening was the spoken word tribute from New York poet, Caroline Rothstein. She was paired with Chicago Fire Department firefighter and paramedic, Patrick J. Jessee who is a survivor of non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. The robust and dynamic delivery of Rothstein created a vivid depiction of Jessee that was touching and heart palpitating. After she was done, Jessee and Rothstein shared an emotional moment embraced that could only be interpreted, as an onlooker, to be gratitude. Gratitude for the experience as the artist and survivor respectively. The moment rang symbolic of what Brushes with Cancer is all about: human connection and understanding.
Glass artist Anna Curnes and colon cancer survivor Cass Drew are examples of another match made that resulted in person-to-person connectivity. Curnes said that Brushes with Cancer was a new experience for her in her experience with creating art, in that this was the first time she had done something inspired by an event in someone else’s life (though she has done art inspired by other people and events in her own life).
“It was kind of emotional, because you get to walk into someone’s life,” said Curnes. “Cass welcomed me in and literally told me everything and let me sit in that crazy space with him with all the emotions –the joys and hopes, but also fears that runs through going through cancer. It was a really cool thing to be able to put that out as a piece of art.”
She added that it was really challenging, because she felt there was no way she could ever really understand Drew’s experience. But in the end she took what touched her the most about his experience, along with the qualities of Drew that resonated loudest: his courage and bravery.
Curnes told a story about how the hardest part for Drew was making the choice to undergo chemo and choose to put “freezing poison” into his body. He began his treatment during the beautiful Chicago summer and became conflicted on the drive to the hospital for his chemotherapy.
“In all the gorgeousness of Chicago summer, with the water and the sky and everyone out, he had to choose to take that Hyde Park exit. He said ‘you don’t know how badly I wanted to just keep driving.’ I asked him if he had ever just kept driving, and he said ‘No, I never did. I always took that exit’ almost confused. And so that’s what struck me as the bravest thing to do. To keep taking that exit over and over.”
Another survivor and artist pair included Bowen Kline and Hector Nunez. Kline’s stated that his inspiration for his painting was Nunez’s strength and lust for life. It was also inspired by Nunez’s favorite childhood hero, El Zorro.
Kline said, “I chose to portray him in a very romantic painting where it’s almost Napoleonic with him on a horse. He is standing with his sword, one man is going to face cancer, and he’s going to win. He’s going to take it head on and he’s going to defeat it.”
That zest for life was very apparent in Nunez as he spoke about his journey going through cancer. He said he was a healthy 50-year old guy training to do his first Half Ironman Triathlon when he was diagnosed with stage four tonsil carcinoma.
Though he mentioned it was a dark moment for him, Nunez felt enlightened through a one-on-one cancer support group called Imerman Angels where he met someone that knew exactly what he was going through. He may have lost his saliva glands and his ability to enjoy his deep love for wine, but he eventually got back to where he left off before his illness. Despite naysayers, he started running again, finished a marathon, and is now training for the triathlon he was supposed to do three years ago.
“Life is incredible,” said Nunez. “I say cancer is one of the best things that ever happened to me. It happened for a reason I think. It gave me the opportunity to love life in a completely different way, and I learned a lot about myself and the people around me. Life has become an incredible gift that I enjoy every single day.”
He also mentioned that he thought Bowen’s portrayal was amazing and that he would love to give the painting to his children.
Many of these interactions with artists and survivors were not face to face. Many used phone, e-mail, and Skype as a way to communicate and connect with each other. For this reason, the meeting between artist and survivor for the first time at Brushes with Cancer was something that Benn Shersher was really looking forward to witnessing.
“I loved watching the pairs meet, embrace and connect for the first time. In addition the art reveal is usually kept secret. Watching the survivors and caregivers see the art that was created in their honor… is truly moving.”
Brushes with Cancer was live streamed all evening. All proceeds from the event go to furthering the mission and operations of Twist Out Cancer; such as workshops, health and wellness events, and Brushes with Cancer events in multi-cities across North America.